Debt and denial

Friday, July 02, 2010

Gov. Pat Quinn boasted about budget cuts that ... he can't specify. Budget director David Vaught asserted that balancing a budget by borrowing is a swell idea. By the end of their Thursday news conference -- intended to project frugality and good stewardship -- the troubled furrows on both men's foreheads told the real story: Team Quinn is as invested in a dead-end strategy of debt and denial as are Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

For two years, these Democratic leaders have been waiting for a robust economic recovery to flood Springfield with new revenue. Problem already. They're also waiting for the Nov. 2 election to pass, after which -- if voters re-empower them -- they may be able to engineer a fat tax increase. In the meantime they are stubbornly loyal to the status quo, unwilling to reinvent the too-costly government they oversee. The upshot of their refusal was evident Thursday. Quinn & Co. have no good answers, which leaves them clinging to bad answers: raising taxpayer debt by still more billions -- and denying the need for spending cuts deep enough to let deadbeat Illinois pay its bills.

By the time they finished speaking, Quinn and Vaught had listed $7 billion in borrowing that they're now executing or hoping to execute. Taxpayers, does this strike you as a wise time to pay your household's basic operating expenses by running up lots and lots of fresh debt? Or would you cut costs?

Quinn is only partly to blame for this second annual Fiscal Fiasco on his watch. As in 2009, Madigan's and Cullerton's members did a superb job of collecting their paychecks this year, but left Springfield for vacation without sending the governor a balanced budget. The days when lawmakers decided how much money each department and program will receive are but a memory. The new game is to avoid budget responsibility by dumping it onto Quinn. Why he plays along, instead of confronting Madigan and Cullerton with their failure to do their most important job, is a mystery.

Not unlike the mystery of Quinn's alleged budget cuts for the 2011 fiscal year, which started Thursday. His staff did identify $509 million in reductions, or roughly 2 percent of 2010 spending from general funds. But the governor's claim that he'll reduce spending by a total of $1.4 billion from fiscal 2010 levels rests on the assertion that he'll find another, unspecified $891 million to cut. We're using words like "alleged," "claim" and "assertion" because, as the Tribune's Monique Garcia and Ray Long report, it's unclear whether Quinn's administration has been lowering spending, as it says -- or continuing to spend and piling up more bills.

Quinn and Vaught didn't build much credibility Thursday with other allegations, claims and assertions:
* Vaught bragged about legislation -- which we've praised -- that will reduce pension benefits for future state hires. But that bill doesn't reduce state pension costs for this year by one dime. Reducing pension benefits going forward for current employees could save an instant $2 billion a year. His peculiar assertion that borrowing $3.7 billion to make the state's 2011 pension payments would be a form of refinancing unfunded pension obligations that have been piling up for decades was a stretch too far for us to accept.

* Quinn and Vaught both said, correctly, that Illinois continues to have bidders willing to buy its downgraded bonds. Neither man confessed that those buyers are demanding -- and getting -- exceptionally high interest from the pockets of Illinois taxpayers as their price for buying bonds from an insolvent state.

Bottom line: An exercise in candor this was not. We wish Quinn would admit that taxpayers can't afford state government as it's now structured -- and really don't want him to bury them in borrowing.

We wish. But we don't expect. As Thursday proved, this governor would rather take refuge in debt and denial.