Rauner explains 'right to work zones'

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner says his campaign proposal to create "right to work zones" also means designating areas where businesses face fewer tax and regulatory burdens, but the idea has raised eyebrows in union-friendly Illinois.

The venture capitalist is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in one of the nation's most competitive governor's races where labor issues have featured prominently.

Rauner told The Associated Press in a recent interview that the zones would be a way to give local entities autonomy and help jump-start economically-depressed areas. Rauner said an example of his plan could let municipalities or counties decide on whether to make paying union fees voluntary for unionized workers. And it would allow struggling areas, such as Chicago neighborhoods or downtown Decatur, the ability to lower corporate income tax rates to lure new businesses, something that appears to take a program that Illinois already offers a step further.

"Create opportunities where our state is really suffering the most. Create opportunities of more flexibility where they can innovate and really create environments that are very attractive to business," the wealthy businessman told the AP in the recent interview. "What I'd love to do is travel, on my nickel, recruiting companies to come to those zones and ... create some true economic growth in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods."

The zones would "allow local communities to decide whether workers must join a union in order to get a job," according to Rauner's website. He told AP such zones would give counties and cities control.

But unions and Quinn blasted the idea - which has already been contentious between unions and Republican governors elsewhere - as hurting workers and unions.

"My opponent is the most anti-working candidate that Illinois has ever seen," Quinn told reporters Monday after an event with veterans and labor officials. "That policy that he's proposing will hurt the workers of Illinois severely. We're not going to let him get away with it."

Unions worked against Rauner during the primary, with ads and support for another GOP candidate.

Some were skeptical of the plan, particularly because of the name, as a way to bring right to work into Illinois.

Rauner dismissed the notion.

"We could call them economic opportunity zones," he said.

He told AP he won't push statewide right to work legislation or try to curb collective bargaining rights, even as he's made fighting "government union bosses" a campaign cornerstone and often cites admiration for governors in Wisconsin and Indiana who've championed anti-union policies.

Other states have mulled similar zones. This year Maine lawmakers killed a proposal offering business tax breaks and workers the ability not to pay labor union fees in certain areas.

But some experts questioned if the idea would work in Illinois, citing the difficulty in lawmakers writing different rules for different areas and businesses left to sort them out.

"This would be a paperwork documentation nightmare," said Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He added businesses need "assurance, they need consistency. And the last thing they'd ever want to see is national battles" on labor issues.

Anders Lindall, an Illinois spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said such zones could pit workers against each other.

For decades, Illinois has had a program carving out "enterprise zones" offering tax breaks. There are roughly 100 such areas where businesses are eligible for incentives like state sales tax exemptions on purchases of personal property used in manufacturing.

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