Springfield's lost boys

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The real Illinois fiasco isn't that legislators have failed to pass a budget. The real fiasco is that they've even considered Gov. Pat Quinn's latest pipe dream for this state to borrow its way to solvency. Quinn keeps demanding a budget that puts children first. That's fine — although burying our kids beneath still more billions of dollars in Illinois debt obligations seems a cruel way to do it.

Fortunately for the governor, enough Republican and Democratic legislators seem determined — thus far, at least — to keep Quinn from making Illinois the westernmost outpost of Greece. Just as enough smart lawmakers have blocked House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton from all but declaring a pension holiday. You'd think Madigan and Cullerton, with their combined 72 years in the General Assembly, wouldn't let the state with the worst-funded pension system in the U.S. do anything other than make its next payment of $3.8 billion. Failing to do so would rob Illinois of desperately needed investment income on that money.

Let's see — more borrowing, another pension holiday, and we haven't even mentioned Quinn's clamoring for a tax increase: The inescapable takeaway here is that Illinois leadership is as close to bankrupt as state government itself. What's obvious in 2010, as in 2009, is that Quinn, Madigan and Cullerton don't have the will to restructure the mega-business that is today's downward-spiraling Illinois.

Statehouse insiders still live for late-session palace mystique, with a puff of white smoke eventually signaling … The Deal. Sure, lawmakers probably will write some sort of budget. But this year, with legislators so clueless that they abruptly skipped town on vacation, every voter can peek behind the curtain. Not much to see, is there? Except, that is, for the chronic inability of Democratic leaders to react to tough times as imaginatively as millions of taxpayers have had to do in their households and businesses.

As they try to cut this year's version of The Deal, flummoxed Democrats look inept and distracted, their attention flitting from gimmick to gimmick. Witness the loopy, lingering proposal to, in effect, turn six Illinois racetracks into land-based casinos by letting them install thousands of slot machines. That might have been an OK idea before these same lawmakers in 2009 authorized 45,000 video gambling machines statewide. Now it looks like what it is: a late-game gambit to scrounge a little revenue instead of reforming how Illinois spends.

Or misspends. Tuesday's report from Illinois' auditor general on the state's expanded "All Kids" health insurance program yet again showed the shabby business practices that Quinn & Co. would rather insulate than overhaul: Among other wastes, the state keeps paying medical claims when families stop paying premiums — and even pays some claims for recipients who are too old for the program. And while 70 percent of the costs provide care for illegal immigrant children, the state bungled the collection of federal matching money by mistakenly classifying some legal immigrants as undocumented.

Rather than subsidizing such mismanagement by further taxing Illinoisans who still are employed, lawmakers need to deliver more government efficiency — and quickly grow more jobs. Remember that recent University of Illinois research calculating that, given population growth, the state needs 600,000 more jobs just to get employment back to where it was a decade ago? Not likely to happen on the Quinn-Madigan-Cullerton watch: Chief Executive magazine's latest survey of 651 CEOs ranks Illinois near the bottom of the "Best and Worst States for Business." These big employers did award Illinois one distinction: steepest fall over the last five years — from a tolerable 17th place to a lifeless 46th.

Mr. Quinn, Mr., Madigan, Mr. Cullerton, you keep focusing on what agencies, employees and interest groups say they "need." Thus you have not kept the governor's nearly forgotten pledge to "Cut, cut, cut." If you pivot to that priority and still want revenue to rise, more borrowing and taxing won't do it reliably for the long haul. Private-sector job creation will. Admit that employers recognize how your taxing, debts and regulations have made Illinois an expensive place to hire workers. Then lower government overhead, eschew borrowing and make this state more business-friendly.

Start immediately by cutting future pension benefits for today's employees. That gives you an instant $2 billion-plus.

As is, gentlemen, you've done nothing to make Illinois attractive enough to lure those 600,000 missing jobs. You can waste more time this spring playing budget games rather than reinventing Illinois.

Or you can make the reforms that seem politically impossible today, but that would leave you looking more responsible when this little calendar expires: