“We want to make sure they’re hearing from everyday people”

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Now that the Illinois Legislature is in overtime, organizers from A+ Illinois, the coalition of groups that support an overhaul of state school funding, are working to gauge support among rank-and-file lawmakers for a marginal income tax increase to support education. Ryan Canney, deputy campaign manager and field director for the group, talked with Catalyst Springfield correspondent Aaron Chambers about the group’s strategy in the overtime session.

A: How do you define a marginal income tax increase, and what have been the results of your talking to legislators?

C: One to 2 percent, something like that, and maybe phased-in, if that makes it an easier swallow for some people. Our job is to continue to show that there’s support [in legislative districts].

Q: Now that we’re into overtime, obviously the political dynamics have changed pretty significantly. Has your strategy changed at all?

A: There was a natural letdown right after May 31st. But now people are renewing their efforts. They’re re-invigorated to really get after rank-and-file legislators in their home districts. We want to make sure they’re hearing from everyday people—community leaders, superintendents and folks like that—who let them know they can’t come back from Springfield till they get this figured out.

Q: Targeting individual legislators is something you’ve been doing all along. How has that changed?

C: As the overtime session continues, we’ll refine our target list. One of the things we’re doing this summer is more in-district pressure activities. Organizers will be working with volunteers to do “tabling” in the districts: We’re going to bring a table out, with a computer equipped with wireless Internet, which people can use to find who their legislators are, and we’ll have cell phones at the table for them to put in calls to them. That obviously helps generate phone calls, which is good.

Q: What are organizers doing during a typical day?

C: We usually start the day off with a field call. We get everybody on the horn to see if there are any issues out in the field that people are dealing with and share any experiences they’ve had that might help the organizers in other parts of the state. Then they’re meeting with people one-on-one, maybe community leaders or parents who may have been involved in local referendum drives. We did an early blitz in April, when they were on break. We had our local coalitions meet with about 40 legislators in some of our targeted areas. We assigned a liaison for each of those legislators, to follow up with them. That’s different from having the usual lobbyists in Springfield talking to these folks. It gives them a different perspective.

We’re also going to have organizers coordinating drop-in legislative visits. A lot of times the new face of organizing is virtual, with e-mails or a fax. We want to bring back face-to-face interactions. Even if legislators aren’t in their home districts, we’re going to have five or 10 people stopping by on a regular basis to weigh in with the legislator’s staff. That’ll get their attention—to see that people are committed enough to take time during the day to visit and say “We really need you to get this done.”

A: Legislators are very reluctant to embrace a tax increase. How are you going to convince them to put that fear aside?

C: We let them know that it won’t be seen as a negative. In fact, it might be a negative if they were to vote against the tax increase because it’s not a tax increase for nothing—it’s an investment in education. Our job is to [say to] them, “You can do this and you don’t have to be worried come election time.”

A: Are any of them buying that?

C: When we met with a lot of legislators in early April, both Republicans and Democrats, they said “We get that there probably needs to be some kind of income tax increase, maybe a scaled-back version.” Now we’re going back to them to say, can you still [support] that? We’ll show you there’s support in your district.”

Q: Republican leaders seem to have all but ruled out tax increases in the overtime session. How do you intend to overcome that opposition?

A: We have to find some of the more moderate voices in that caucus and continue to let them know that it’s in their interest to support some kind of tax increase for education. They have to weigh what their constituents say versus what [House Minority leader Tom] Cross or [Senate Minority leader Frank] Watson will say.