Groundhog Day

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Did you see what happened in Springfield this week? The same legislators who want you to think they passed real ethics reforms have failed you anew, this time in their stewardship of state finances.

They've passed a new budget that dodges crucial and maddeningly overdue spending reforms. They've put off paying past-due bills, further enshrining the state of Illinois as a deadbeat. And they've borrowed taxpayers into near-oblivion.

Sick of reading about it? We're sick of writing it, too. So sick, in fact, that we just recycled the first two paragraphs of last year's budget editorial verbatim. Why not? They still work just fine.

The spending plan approved by the House begins and ends with $6 billion in unpaid bills to state vendors and contractors. It relies on more than $9 billion in new borrowing, including $3.7 billion to meet the state's annual pension contribution. It would reduce spending over which the state has discretion by a modest 4.8 percent and dump the job of making the actual cuts on Gov. Pat Quinn. Since the governor doesn't like to antagonize public-employee unions, watch the brunt of cuts fall unfairly on the state's social-service providers.

We could fill the page with year-old quotes from lawmakers acknowledging they'd taken the cowardly route and promising to come back and pass a responsible budget. They're singing the same song today. They're buying time by borrowing, delaying payments and employing one-time budget gimmicks. As House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, aptly put it, this budget "has a lot of duct tape around it."

Legislative leaders aren't willing to make the real spending reforms that would erase the deficit over time. We've made a number of suggestions, but as long as we're repeating ourselves, they include:

Reducing future pension earnings for current employees, revamping Medicaid, putting the brakes on legislators' pet projects in their $31 billion capital spending plan. Not done, not done, not done.

Never mind an ambitious restructuring of government. House members couldn't even bring themselves to support a package of cuts suggested by a group of mostly suburban Democrats. A plan to make state retirees pay for their health insurance, for example, was rejected. Lawmakers did agree to cut their 50-cents-per-mile travel allowance to 39 cents and reduced their $139 per diem allowance to $111. And they're taking 12 furlough days. Big deal. How about giving those state plane rides a rest, and giving up the cars that ferry legislative leaders around the state?

How bad is the situation? So bad that borrowing nearly $4 billion to make the annual pension payment — for the second year in a row — was presented as a good policy decision, since the other option was to skip it altogether. Borrowing will cost the state "only" a billion in interest over eight years, compared with the long-term loss of perhaps $20 billion if the payment isn't made on time.

"So 20-1 ratio, you tell me what's the responsible thing to do," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.

Which just goes to show you how far gone we are.

Call your legislator. Follow the link below to get the number.

Be prepared to vote. We're counting down the days right here.

Don't forget who got us here.