Quinn's bad Monday

Monday, April 26, 2010

Back on Feb. 22, Gov. Pat Quinn got unexpected good news, and his staffers were elated. Chicago's Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group historically opposed to tax increases, said it could stomach an income tax hike — under certain conditions and for certain purposes. Most of the news coverage focused not on those contingencies but on the man-bites-dog angle: Here was the business-oriented Civic Federation expressing tolerance for raising the income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent.

That was then. As Monday dawns, Quinn is an increasingly lonely proponent of a tax hike. The Civic Federation comes out Monday with a 95-page rejection of the governor's proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in 10 weeks. The support for a tax hike? Gone. Laurence Msall, the federation's president, sounds exasperated with Quinn and Democratic legislative leaders. "They haven't lived up to our expectations," he says. "They haven't cut spending. We see no evidence that they've tried."

Back in February, Msall's group made its key points in boldface type: Illinois taxpayers shouldn't just get today's overspent, overborrowed government at tomorrow's higher price. Any tax increase "must be linked to deeper spending cuts" and "substantive reforms that will reduce costs and liabilities in the future." Even then, new revenue had to be "used to pay for the State's outstanding liabilities, including its woefully underfunded pension system." This wasn't some vague call to reduce expenditures. The federation's 103-page "Rehabilitation Plan for the State of Illinois" mapped out billions of dollars in potential savings.

In other words: First reform how you do business, promise to pay your bills and cut debt, and only then we can begin to talk about a tax increase.

That's not terribly far from the message this page has been advancing for well over a year.

In response, Quinn and legislative leaders have done … next to nothing. They passed pension legislation that will lower pension costs decades from now, but not by one penny today. The report the Civic Federation issues Monday says Quinn's budget isn't balanced, relies too heavily on still more borrowing, doesn't address $6.2 billion in outstanding bills and will worsen the state's deficit. The report notes that the governor doesn't want to use his proposed new tax revenue to pay bills or to reduce pension liabilities, but rather as one more excuse to avoid spending cuts.

Newly added to the federation's prescription for salvaging Illinois government: "To reduce its substantial unfunded pension liabilities, the State needs to reduce the pension benefits of current employees."

The document — available at CivicFed.org — reiterates earlier calls for reform of retiree health insurance, Medicaid and other programs. It also repeats the group's previous criticism of many lawmakers' pride and joy: a $31 billion capital program that will let them puff out their chests for the cameras at ribbon-cuttings. The Civic Federation argues, correctly, that it's irresponsible for a state that can't pay its bills to borrow another $19 billion for capital projects over the next five years.

Gov. Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton: All you had to do is act on behalf of taxpayers and reform how Illinois spends money. You would have had an influential group of business and professional people willing to go along with a tax increase.

But you didn't. So you don't.