To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the Republican Party are greatly exaggerated. Similar obituaries were written in 1992 and 2008, followed by huge Republican victories two years later.
Despite President Barack Obama's slim victory last month, Republicans hold most of the governorships (30) in the country, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio, even though citizens in those states voted to re-elect Obama. Exit polls indicate a center-right electorate gravely concerned about government that taxes too much, spends too much and borrows too much.
But if the Illinois Republican Party isn't dead, it's on life support. Most Republicans (and many independents) still are stunned by the state's election results. Now that the dust has settled and the self-flagellation is over, Illinois Republicans need to prepare a bold plan for 2014. It's our duty to assuage the palpable anxiety I hear from voters daily. I've served in public office for more than 20 years and have never seen people more fearful about the economic future of our state and country than they are right now.
Republican leaders in Illinois must do better. Losing elections despite an electorate that favors our basic philosophy points to a failure in policy execution, messaging and outreach. On a national level, voters can easily identify the differences between the two parties; in Illinois, the distinction is unclear.
Ideas still matter. For the most part, we did not effectively present meaningful solutions to the state's pension crisis, high unemployment, tax burden and rising spending. Our Midwestern counterparts have fought vigorously on controversial issues (look at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last summer and the defeat of a pro-public-sector-union measure in Michigan) and persuaded a "blue" electorate to entrust Republicans to lead. Yet in Illinois you'd be hard-pressed to clearly articulate a Republican agenda that addresses these critical issues. You can't win a fight you never wage.
Illinois Republicans must get back to basics. While by no means a complete list, here is a start:
- Cut spending: No one believes Illinois government is operating at an optimal level. In DuPage County, we performed "stress tests" on many agencies to identify operational cost-savings. We've cut the DuPage County budget by $13 million in just two years and will save $20 million due to employee benefit reforms. The same effort must be conducted at the state level. Freezing salaries, trimming generous benefits, reducing head count and requiring employees to pay more for health insurance will yield significant annual savings.
- Shrink the size of state government: Illinois Republicans have been mostly silent on the issue of privatization. New Jersey and Arizona are actively privatizing state services; Florida saved nearly $600 million over the last several years due to an aggressive privatization effort. Louisiana is acting on a comprehensive plan to achieve $1 billion in savings through privatization and consolidation. Health care, economic development and corrections present a few areas ripe for privatization that will save tax dollars or allow for the repurposing of those funds in other critical areas.
- Support the phase-out of the income tax hike: Between 2000 and 2010, Illinois ranked third in the nation in terms of migration out of the state — this is before the massive income tax hike. Tax increases next year at the federal level will only exacerbate that burden and hasten the exodus of jobs and tax revenues out of Illinois. The income tax hike must expire after 2014; Republicans need to propose other funding sources such as service-based revenues that will broaden the tax base and stop job creators and earners from fleeing our state.
- Get out front on the pension crisis: Republicans need to talk about this issue every day. Ideas such as raising the retirement age and increasing contributions have merit, but we need to go further. The Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank, says that a cost-of-living-adjustment freeze would address roughly one-quarter of the funding gap — we should consider this move. Also, there is no way out of this mess without changing current benefits. It's frustrating to see Illinois Democrats leading on this issue and taking hits from public employee unions. Our colleagues in other states are challenging the grip that public employee union leaders have on state coffers — we must follow suit.
Certainly other issues such as Medicaid, education and infrastructure require attention as well. But getting back to our central themes — supported by real solutions — will help us regain our footing and fix Illinois' massive fiscal crisis. A party with such a proud tradition of measured, thoughtful leadership can succeed again. Voters are eager to hear a clear alternative to the current political situation. Let's make sure they have it in 2014.