Jack Franks: Gov. Quinn, lawmakers need to learn how to say no

Thursday, April 29, 2010

These days, Illinois is in desperate need of a multitude of things: an influx of jobs, a fully funded pension system, a winning baseball team. Yet, what Illinois needs most during this alarming period of our history is precedent-shattering leadership.
Everyone agrees that eliminating the $13 billion budget deficit facing our state is not a task for the faint of heart, but close the gap we must, and legislators need to be bold. It is time Gov. Pat Quinn and Illinois’ legislators have the courage to put a stop to the unchecked spending paradigm that put us in the fiscal quicksand we are in today. We must step back from the precipice of our man-made fiscal disaster.
Despite Illinois’ balanced-budget constitutional amendment, our state has essentially budgeted by shooting from the hip, borrowing and not paying our bills. Illinois does not and has not operated under a careful or sensible spending system and that must stop. We need to fundamentally change how the budgeting process is done.
I have co-sponsored legislation that would require the General Assembly to adopt a full accrual-based accounting statement prior to voting on the budget. Accordingly, legislators would know exactly what economic position the state is in before they approve any budget.
The precedent of starting the budgeting process at the previous year’s spending levels is irresponsible and must be replaced with a zero-based approach and require all spending to be justified. It is simply common-sense, prudent accounting. By requiring the General Assembly to utilize accrual-based accounting techniques, we can prevent this type of fiscal nightmare from reoccurring.
Still, reversing the approach to the budgeting process must be coupled with forensic audits to make a real difference. Illinois does not have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem.
In fact, state revenue for the current year is at the third-highest ever in the history of Illinois — greater than 2007 levels. So why are we in such dire straits?
With more than 1,700 state programs, the Illinois budget rings of excessive spending even to the most untrained ear. In fact, unbridled spending has created a labyrinth of pork projects that make it difficult to efficiently run vital and necessary state programs.
These programs come at a cost of billions, at a time when slashing education funding is threatened. We need to take a step back and remember that government is not self-perpetuating.
Furthermore, those who see an income tax increase as the only solution do not understand the problem. With one out of eight Illinoisans out of work, a tax increase would only serve to lead us further down the wrong path. It would be unfair to imply that the budget deficit is Quinn’s fault. However, he has not made the situation better.
Instead of advocating for a tax increase, Quinn should take a number of judicious measures to stop the bleeding.
* For example, by executive order, Quinn could cut $1.2 billion dollars worth of “member initiative” pork projects.
* Secondly, he should push for collection of the more than $1 billion in taxes and fees that are owed to Illinois.
* Next, scrapping the lieutenant governor office would save us $16 million over four years.
* Eliminating the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity would save another $1 billion.
* Combining the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority with the Illinois Department of Transportation would also save millions.
* Finally, payments to governor-appointed boards and commissions should be eliminated.
Rather than playing politics with a hot-button issue like education funding, Quinn needs to scour Illinois’ budget, assess every dollar spent and cut all but the most necessary expenditures.
It will not be easy. But Illinois can both pull itself out of this mess and make our budgeting process stronger and more efficient in the future. We must shrink the influence of government through a combination of prudent accounting practices and restrained spending.
I urge Quinn and my fellow legislators to be innovative and remember that assent without careful consideration is not leadership. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.”
Jack Franks is a Democratic state representative from Marengo.