Campaigns aimed at reining in government tour suburbs

Monday, August 30, 2010

Many hear "tour" and think rock star or exotic travel plans.

But several conservative-leaning organizations are seeking to change that through newly formed spinoff campaigns, all aimed at getting candidates to be precise about solutions and getting voters to the ballot box come November.

The groups have spent the summer crisscrossing the suburbs, warning about the state and country's woeful financial conditions and advocating for change.

Members of Illinois is Broke, a campaign launched by the Commercial Club of Chicago, told attendees at a Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week that in order to pull the state out of its financial tailspin, lawmakers must balance the budget and make reasonable cuts.

The same day, Spending Revolt, a national coalition of taxpayers, business owners and policy organizations, stopped its bus at Chicago's lakefront to rail about "reckless" federal government spending.

The Illinois Turnaround Tour, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute, rolled into Schaumburg Thursday in a logo-wrapped RV to rally against tax hikes and for pension reform.

While each of the groups project fiscally conservative viewpoints that resonate with supporters of the tea party movement, leaders say they are not promoting or endorsing candidates from either major political party, but simply calling for change.

John Tillman, CEO of the Policy Institute, said the idea for the Turnaround Tour was conceptualized this spring.

"One of my big concerns was candidates running this fall would not be willing to put out a specific set of solutions. Whether Republicans or Democrats, their aim is risk avoidance. I thought it would be a good idea for us to do a full educational effort statewide about what it would take to turn the state around."

Tillman believes that Americans want three basic things - a secure job, improving income and the feeling of politics going in the right direction.

The Turnaroud Tour campaign has four main platforms: stopping out-of-control spending, expanding transparency, reforming the state pension system and removing licensing restrictions that stand in the way of entrepreneurs.

Tillman said the Policy Institute figured a tour - complete with a bright yellow megabus - would be far more successful than projecting and collecting opinions from its downtown office.

"We thought, we've got to take this show on the road. We've got to go out and talk to the rotary clubs, the chambers. How would we do that? We've got to go on a tour. If we got a bus, this is really a public policy campaign. And you know, when the bus rolls in, people stop and look and ask you about what we stand for. We're trying to build some grass-roots citizen momentum."

Tillman said the campaign has spent "well into five figures" on the project, with much of the money coming from donations.

It doesn't plan to hit the brakes anytime soon.

The group recently decided to move to purchase the bus it had been renting, so it can keep the campaign going after the election.

Illinois is Broke was formed by the Commercial Club's Civic Committee last winter, in advance of the February primary.

The nonpartisan Commercial Club's campaign, like the Policy Institute's, does not promote any specific candidates, but advocates for "working together with all the major players involved to arrive at constructive and mutually beneficial solutions."

The group, which will continue efforts at least through the November election, has taken out full-page newspaper ads, that say Illinois is "virtually bankrupt" and asking voters "which candidates will be the best ones to fix this mess?"

Members of the campaign told attendees at the Naperville chamber event that lawmakers must balance the budget, and they also must reform the pension and retiree health care plans for Illinois' public employees.

Miles White, chairman of the Civic Committee, said the group created a task force in 2006 to evaluate the state's financial health and budgetary practices. The task force found the state, by overspending and borrowing to cover operating expenses, was heading toward "financial unviability."

Since that time, they believe, a continuation of the same fiscal policies and the economic downtown has only made the situation worse.

Doing nothing will mean less money for various programs and services in the short term. In the long term, the state is headed toward a point where its budget "will simply implode," Martin said.

Spending Revolt spokesman Stephen Manfredi said the bus tour has in the past five weeks made the rounds to 10 different states, decrying federal government spending. Running the tour up until the Nov. 2 election, he said, he expects the number to double.

"I think that there's always, whenever you have an (election), it's always an advantageous time to speak about pressing public issues. But I think the impetus is in the policy that we're seeing, that we're continuing to spend."

Among the Spending Revolt tours speakers preaching themes of accountability and responsibility is Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher, who became known as "Joe the Plumber" for challenging then-presidential candidate Barack Obama at a 2008 Ohio campaign stop.

At a bus stop in Kenosha, Wis., last week, Wurzelbacher told the Kenosha News that it wasn't his purpose to serve political parties.

"My real purpose is to serve my country," he said before noting that Republicans have raised millions of dollars that would go back to a "good 'ol boys" network that includes former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Manfredi maintained that the issue of fiscal responsibility "cuts across both political parties," but acknowledged it probably resonates with Republicans and moderates more than Democrats.

The bus tour idea, he said, "is a little bit of trend. Something we've been able to get people excited about. Get good media with."

Reforms: Groups say they don't back any particular political party.