- - Thursday, February 12, 2015

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s executive order on Monday freeing public-sector employees from paying mandatory dues creates a crack in the public union monolith responsible for Illinois’ fiscal woes. That’s also good news for taxpayers.

Mr. Rauner, a Republican, couched his decision in principle, citing First Amendment precedent, claiming that he was “duty bound” to protect employees whose compelled union dues are being funneled to support political causes and candidates that they don’t support. It’s a clear violation of free speech.

Exit polls from the 2014 election show that 38 percent of union households voted for a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, yet 90 percent of union political donations from that election cycle went to Democrats. Mr. Rauner’s order attempts to uphold the basic American principle that you shouldn’t be forced to choose between your values and your job. It may be necessary in a democracy to live by the will of the majority, but extending that concept to being forced to fund a candidate’s campaign that you oppose is a bridge too far.

However, the decision is a big deal not simply for reasons of principle or the 6,500 state employees who are hereby exempted from an average of $577 in yearly dues. Namely, it disrupts the incestuous relationship between public-union representatives and friendly state legislators who engage in quid pro quo agreements to trade campaign contributions for inflated compensation packages at taxpayer expense.

Research from the Illinois Policy Institute illustrates the scale of this problem: 86 percent of state lawmakers who served between 2002 and 2014 received campaign cash from public-sector unions, with House Speaker Michael Madigan receiving more than $1 million.

Illinois now spends about one in three dollars of its state budget on employee compensation and one in four on public-sector retirement benefits. That is more than primary and secondary education spending combined. The result is $111 billion in unfunded liabilities, $5.8 billion in unpaid bills, and the worst credit rating in the nation.

These liabilities and interest on this massive debt crowd out spending on essential services and infrastructure improvements. They also preclude lower taxes. Mr. Rauner was elected to improve the dreadful economic performance of Illinois compared to its neighboring states, and this order is his first big move.

Nearby Wisconsin shows what an effective move this can be. When Gov. Scott Walker halted mandatory dues for government employees in 2011, the number of members of the big Wisconsin public-sector union, AFSCME Council 40, dropped off a cliff from 29,777 to 13,256 by 2013. It turns out that far fewer employees are willing to pay for union representation when given the choice.

This also explains why union big shots are calling all hands on deck for this Illinois fight. Their rhetoric betrays their desperation. “Scott Walker on steroids,” is how Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis described Mr. Rauner.

Not to be outdone, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka appeared on MSNBC this week to make the bizarre argument that non-union members should not be allowed to opt out of mandatory dues for the same reason that Illinois residents are not able to opt out of paying income tax. A better analogy is forcing people to take a ride on a bus that they want to get off and then charging them for the ride.

While Illinois taxpayers are happy, a similar action at the national level could soon give all Americans some relief. A group in California is asking the Supreme Court to declare all mandatory dues unconstitutional, suing on the behalf of an elementary school teacher in Orange County. They call the case “a challenge to the largest regime of state-compelled speech for public employees in the nation.” Mr. Rauner himself has asked federal courts to expedite ruling on his order.

While unions will undoubtedly call such actions an attack on the middle class, Illinois’ fiscal situation reveals that they have it backwards: The middle class is finally regaining control of its government from union bosses.

Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co., a public affairs firm in Washington D.C.

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