Kentucky Provides Model For Rauner's "Empowerment Zones"

Feb 27, 2015

Just over a month since taking office, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has already laid out a clear agenda. He’s detailed significant spending cuts, proposed a pension overhaul and targeted the power of unions. That includes a proposal to allow some parts of the state to become what he calls 'right-to-work' zones.  Neighboring Kentucky recently began a similar experiment, and could offer some clues as to what to expect in Illinois.

A teamsters truck is parked outside the Warren County, KY courthouse on the day the fiscal court gave final approval to a local right-to-work law
Credit Lisa Autry / WKU Public Radio

The governor first outlined his plan for what he called worker empowerment zones in late January, during a visit to Decatur.

He said he was not in favor of making Illinois a right-to-work state.

“But I do advocate local governments, local voters, being able to decide for themselves whether to be right to work areas, right-to-work zones," he said.

If a city or county voted to become a right-to-work zone, unions could no longer require workers to pay union dues. It’s rare for local governments to enact right-to-work laws. That’s usually a state issue.

Only a handful of counties in the country have become right-to-work zones, six of them in Kentucky. The bluegrass state is one of a few southern states that don’t have a statewide right to work measure. Attempts to pass it in the legislature have been repeatedly held up in the state’s Democratic-majority House, even as recently as last week. 

So Kentucky native Brent Yessin decided to push for the same concept at the local level. 

“We knew we had legislation that was broadly supported up to 80-percent in Kentucky that couldn’t get out of the legislature, and yet it had broad support locally," he said.

Yessin is a Florida-based attorney and advisor with the non-profit group Protect My Check.  He contends Kentucky counties have the authority under what’s known as home rule to enact local right to work ordinances.  Six of them have been approved so far by county fiscal courts - the equivalent of a county board in Illinois.

Illinois’ constitution also allows for home rule in some cases, and Yessin said Kentucky can serve as a model for other states.

“In Illinois, for example, I know that cities have broader grants of authority," he said.  "In Ohio, there are charter rule cities and counties, and in Pennsylvania, the same sort of thing.  So depending on what the state constitution, and sort of the organic law of that state is, different political subdivisions will have the authority.  In Kentucky, it’s the county that has a very broad grant of authority.”

Last December, Warren County, Kentucky became what’s believed to be the first US-county to pass such an ordinance.  Ron Bunch heads the Chamber of Commerce in the county seat of Bowling Green.  He said 20 potential employers have contacted him since then, but he’s not able to disclose the names of those companies. 

And Bunch said the effort to enact right to work in the six counties that have approved it - is not about politics.

“Out of 56 total votes cast, only five have been no.  And I think it’s been a pretty good balance between Republican-Democrat.  That’s the only fact I know.  It seems a little odd that you have that at the local level, where they’re directly responsible for creating jobs, and a different voting pattern at a state level.”

What does sound familiar when looking at right-to-work in Kentucky - or anywhere else - is the strong opposition from unions. 

Nine of them have filed a federal lawsuit over the ordinance in Hardin County, Kentucky.  They include the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO.  The state president of that union, Bill Londrigan, said supporters of right to work can’t back up their claims of new jobs with facts.

And he contends Kentucky has lost jobs over international trade, and tax breaks provided in other states – but not over right to work.

“Really, when you peel it away, and get to the bottom of it, it’s all about busting unions, about lowering wages, making us – public image wise, giving us a black eye – it’s just a long-term approach to try and undermine trade unions.”

Londrigan also cites the opinion of Kentucky’s Democratic Attorney General, Jack Conway, who says local governments don’t have the authority to pass these measures under federal law. 

Supporters of right to work often argue it creates jobs. Critics complain it lowers wages, among other issues.

An analyst based in Michigan - which became a right to work state in 2012 - said there’s no empirical evidence to conclude whether these measures truly help or hurt any particular economy.

Tim Bartik is senior economist with W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-partisan group. 

He said it’s hard to compare recent right to work states with southern states that enacted their own laws in the 1940’s or 50’s since those southern states historically had lower wages and less economic activity.

“Just as you wouldn’t want to base medicine on evaluating a drug, based on trying out on two patients – you really can’t say there’s any firm scientific basis for saying what the effects are," he said.  "Really, the way in which things have unfolded do not provide us with any kind of good, natural variation over time in what states have pursued right to work.”

Even with Illinois’ home rule powers, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner says he needs state legislators to give cities and counties the right... to become right to work.

“The state government needs to allow, authorize local voters to decide for themselves," said Rauner, in a recent visit to Champaign.  "They need to give that permission.  And I’m asking the General Assembly to give permission to local voters to control that issue themselves."

Two legal minds in Illinois, a University of Illinois law professor, and a community lawyer with the Citizens Advocacy Center of suburban Chicago agree with the governor.

But one analyst calls this a futile effort at best.  Chris Mooney is the Director of the U of I’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs. 

“The big question to me is why Rauner brings it up," he said.  "Why does he wave this red flag in front of the bull at a time when he really needs support across the aisle.

Mooney said there would be no point in even bringing such a measure before a supermajority Democratic legislature that also has some backing from unions.  

And with the opposition over the billions in cuts that Governor Rauner proposed this week in his budget plan, it’s unlikely a measure to initiate right to work at the local level will be a priority in the Illinois legislature.