Direct Democracy Yields Minimum Results

Jan 1, 2015

News Analysis — We’ve all had this experience: you’re asked a question, give your opinion, then watch your interlocutor ignore the answer.

If you didn’t care what I thought, why’d you ask?

That would be a fair question among the 2,339,173 Illinois voters who cast a ballot in favor of a higher minimum wage in November.

The push to increase the minimum wage has been around for years. Both President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat Quinn called for an increase in their respective annual addresses in 2014. But in both the Illinois General Assembly and the Congress, the votes didn’t seem to be there.

In Illinois, Democrats decided to try a rare bit of direct democracy, letting voters weigh in on the question at the general election. And, hey, if it happened to help Democratic turnout, what can you do? The wording was straightforward: “Shall the minimum wage in Illinois for adults over the age of 18 be raised to $10 per hour by January 1, 2015?”

When the results were finally certified in December, we got proof of what polls had been saying for a while: increasing the minimum wage is popular. Even in DuPage County, long regarded as the blue-blooded heart of red state Illinois, the minimum wage outpolled Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

Raising the wage was certainly more popular than its loudest champion, the vanquished Quinn. Though political scientists will tell you this sort of policy coherence is not a given, let’s assume for the sake of argument that all 1,681,343 people who voted for Quinn also voted in favor of raising the minimum wage. That means 657,830 people voted for the wage but could not bring themselves to award Quinn his seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth years in office.

In fact, only one Illinois politician can claim to be more popular than the minimum wage: Secretary of State Jesse White. He edged out the wage by a mere 35,676 votes.

And what did the state’s ruling class make of this clear-throated endorsement from the vox populi? They shrugged. Opponents remained opposed. And even supporters quickly moved to exceed the mandate.

Rauner maintained his campaign position that he’d support a minimum wage increase if it was coupled with so-called pro-business legislation. Actually, I suppose it’d be more accurate to say he maintained his final campaign position, since he’d previously had several others.

During a panel discussion on the economy at Dartmouth back in 2011, long before Rauner formally announced his candidacy for governor, he responded to a question about rising inequality by dismissing some of the proposed remedies, such as higher taxes on the wealthy, encouraging unionization and raising the minimum wage. “Those are all in a lot of ways counter-productive, in my opinion,” Rauner said. He would later tell others the minimum wage ought to be reduced or even eliminated.

Then it became an issue in the campaign for governor. Quinn sought to use Rauner’s being “adamantly opposed” to raising the wage in TV ads, one as early as primary election night, before Rauner had even won. That’s when Rauner settled on saying he could get behind a raise if lawmakers also approved changes to the system that regulates how injured employees are compensated by their employers, and make it harder for people to sue and win large awards in court. Nevermind that the Illinois Supreme Court has rejected previous attempts at so-called tort reform.

So count Rauner among those who were not swayed by the referendum. At least he gets credit for consistency. Far more curious the reaction of House Speaker Michael Madigan, who proposed the advisory referendum on the minimum wage in the first place.

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Spring 2014 was one of those rare seasons where the speaker deigned to speak with reporters on a regular basis. After a House committee hearing to put the minimum wage question on the ballot, he even joked around a bit, asking a newspaper reporter if he’d be helped by an increase in the minimum wage. “We’re going to lift up,” Madigan said. “It’s like President Kennedy said. A rising tide lifts all boats. Don’t you agree?”

The questions began: Will it help spur turnout among Democrats?

“I think it’s the type of question that’s going to encourage all voters to come to the polling place,” Madigan said, “for and against that individual question.”

Using one of Quinn’s most shopworn sayings, I asked the speaker if he’d commit to “making the will of the people the law of the land.”

Madigan dodged: “Well — that’s a great prophet. Thank God we have him.”

Let’s try again: Would you work hard to pass an increase if the voters approved of the idea?

“I think it’s significant on an advisory question,” Madigan said. “And if it’s a solid positive vote, it’d be a big help to passing the bill.”

So much for that.

Democrats who supported the wage hike quickly decided they should go beyond the people’s mandate for an increase to $10, and instead plotted a course that would eventually result in an $11 rate. (Quinn, who sought to make a lame duck wage hike his last big act as governor, told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed he wanted a $10 rate. So points for actually abiding by the will of the people.)

Near the end of veto session, Madigan told House Democrats there would be no minimum wage vote this year. “The speaker is going to continue to work to raise the minimum wage,” spokesman Steve Brown says. “That effort is going to continue, but the complications of the last week or so made it impossible to find 60 votes right now to raise the minimum wage.”

First among those complications seems to be Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to push a $13-an-hour minimum wage through the Chicago City Council. That seems to have undercut the General Assembly’s efforts to raise the statewide minimum wage to $11. The state proposal would have capped wage hikes in Chicago and other localities, so why would a Chicago Democratic legislator cast a vote that could be construed as limiting her constituents’ earning potential?

With that result, does that mean Republicans were right back in the spring, when they said the referendum was all about spurring Democratic turnout?

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Brown says. “It better demonstrates all the different complications of the rise: Let’s raise the minimum wage, but harm what benefits injured workers can get. Let’s put up the welcome sign for polluters and sloppy businessmen. All the different limitations people want on different parts of the minimum wage idea,” he added, putting a Democratic spin on Rauner’s conditions.

And yet I can’t shake the feeling that both sides — opponents who refuse to recognize the will of the people, and supporters who sought to exceed it — are slapping the voters in the face.

I put that idea before state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood, who has long championed a minimum wage hike. “We should definitely take their vote into consideration,” Lightford says. “We have to make sure that we do not allow politics and parties to get in the way of what it is that we’re really here to do: we’re here to govern to help the people that need the help the most, and that would be working families who earn a low wage and still live in poverty.”

We haven’t even mentioned the so-called Millionaire’s Tax, also pushed by Madigan. It would impose a three percent surcharge on income greater than $1 million, ostensibly to better fund education. That did well among voters, too, beating Rauner, Quinn and all the other statewide candidates except White. Brown says Democrats will continue to work on that, too.

We shall see.

Direct Democracy is severely limited in Illinois, and the problems it’s caused in other states suggests that’s a good thing. But if you’re going to bother to ask the people what they think, you ought not ignore the results.

Illinois Issues, January 2015