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Rich Miller

"Is that the guy from the Policy Institute?" House Speaker Michael Madigan asked his press secretary after an Illinois News Network reporter recently tried to ask Madigan a question at the Statehouse.

The Illinois Policy Institute transferred ownership of the network to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity back in January. But they all share the same street address. "Same difference," Madigan’s press secretary said in response to his boss’ question.

"When are you guys gonna fold your tent?" Madigan asked the reporter.

It’s true that the Policy Institute is currently in a very weak spot. Before Bruce Rauner ran for office, the institute was the go-to source for fiscally conservative talking points. Rauner was a dream candidate for an advocacy group that bills itself as a think tank. The anti-union tax-hater was a perfect fiscal and ideological match for them. The Institute backed him throughout the long governmental impasse and helped gin up rabid opposition to an income tax hike and then unleashed a furious response against the legislative Republicans who crossed Rauner and voted for that tax increase.

But then the group helped engineer Rauner’s staff purge in July of 2017 and everything went downhill from there.

Rauner abruptly fired all of his loyal top staff without helping them find other employment, which is just not done in this business. He fired the people who knew where all the bones were buried. And, man, were they ever hungry for revenge.

The former Rauner staffers who’d been with him since the 2014 campaign were replaced in large part by Illinois Policy Institute staffers and other people of that ilk. Those folks proved to be a disaster and almost all were forced out. Rauner not only hurt his own "brand" by associating his government with the institute, but the institute hurt its brand by associating itself so closely with an unpopular governor.

When Rauner signed HB40 into law, he drove another wedge between himself and the institute. The group’s chief executive officer, John Tillman, who had worked closely with Rauner during the first few years of the governor’s tenure, lashed out and called him “Benedict Rauner” for previously telling Republican legislators and others that he would veto the bill, which paid for abortions of Medicaid recipients. After the Sun-Times and ProPublica Illinois published an investigation into the institute’s intricate web of not-for-profit and for-profit activities, Rauner publicly vowed to not give the group "another nickel."

And then Rauner got thumped like a drum in the November election, scoring just 39 points while losing by 15. Rauner is soon to be gone, but can the Illinois Policy Institute come back?

Throughout the campaign, Democrat JB Pritzker brushed aside questions about "reforming" the state’s pension systems, a major priority for the Illinois Policy Institute. Pritzker flatly refused to entertain any ideas for lowering pension payments to current government workers and retirees, saying a pension is a promise and he intended to keep that promise. He’s on the opposite side of the institute. The same goes for his support for union rights and increasing the minimum wage.

But right at the very top of the Illinois Policy Institute’s priority list is an issue that was also one of Rauner’s most important missions as governor: Stop a graduated income tax. The group is funded, after all, by people like Rauner. They want to keep as much of their piles of money as they possibly can and they hate giving it to the government.

Pritzker openly campaigned for a progressive income tax. He can be seen as the Illinois Policy Institute’s ultimate nightmare: A wealthy liberal Democrat with massive legislative super-majorities.

There’s another way of looking at this, however. Pritzker could also be seen as the institute’s dream. They no longer have to defend a badly flawed governor and eventually the richest Illinoisans will be energized when Pritzker begins to move his agenda through the legislature, particularly the graduated income tax. The Illinois Policy Institute will be a ready-made receptacle for their mad money.

Expecting Tillman and his crew to glumly pack their bags and move to Italy with the governor is not how this works. If he plays it right, Tillman could eventually rebuild his group even bigger than it was.

The unions didn’t go away when Rauner won, after all. They strengthened their political hand more than ever before because they had such a "perfect" ideological foil.

So, instead of folding their tent, Rauner’s loss just might be Tillman’s gain.

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Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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