St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Fixing Illinois' deficit is not exactly like fixing a headlight

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A headlight was burned out.

Thankfully, it was not the other one on my wife's Toyota Prius. The first of those cost $120 for the bulb and took me about 90 minutes to replace — an effort motivated by a dealer estimate of $800 to have it done. And no, those numbers are not missing decimal points.

This dead bulb was, mercifully, on my Ford. I bought a pack of two replacements for $13 and reveled in the fact that the socket appeared easy to reach. Better yet, the owner's manual instructions pretty much had just two steps.

Step 1: "Locate the outmost top electrical connector and remove it by releasing the locking tab and pulling it straight down."

Step 2: "Remove the bulb socket by turning it clockwise and pulling it straight out."

Even with my pounding migraine, this was clearly a job destined to be completed within a minute. Or not.

That wiring harness had many surfaces, none of them identifiable as a tab. So I tugged. I squeezed. I pushed. I twisted. I jiggled, all the while fearing that breaking something would drive the repair bill up into Prius territory.

For the record, cursing and throwing my broken flashlight out into the yard added nothing to the solution.

So I had an innovative thought. What if I removed the bulb socket before I released the tab. Dare I be so bold?
Thirty minutes into the anticipated 60-second job, I gave the bulb a little turn, pulled it free and beheld the elusive release tab right there inside the socket. From that point, success took only about 45 seconds more.

Then I felt angry enough to throw the owner's manual out to join the flashlight. Step 1, you see, was virtually impossible until Step 2 had been completed. (Note: If you wrote the manual, please contact me for a brief discussion.)
It got me wondering whether the same people might have written the owner's manual for Illinois state government.

Step 1: Spend a lot of money. Step 2: Acquire a lot of money.

As was the case with my car, if you don't perform Step 2 first, you take a big chance of breaking something. I offer as evidence that the state is, in effect, broke.

We have talked for so long about the $13 billion deficit that the number seems to have lost meaning. Let's try to find it again.

• It would be enough dollar bills — standing on edge — to reach from Cairo, Ill., to Chicago and back to Cairo, with enough change left over to make it back to Freeburg.

• If you prefer a flat stack of bills going straight up, it would soar to 884 miles. That's three times higher than the top orbit of the international space station. You could make the argument that such a thing would be impossible to do, and you might be right for a surprising reason: There may not be enough $1 bills in circulation for the job.

• Balancing the Illinois budget deficit would cost about 8 cents for each of the approximately 100 billion human beings believed to have ever lived. Yes, ever lived. Filling the shortfall would need almost $2 for each person alive now.

Any solution is stalled in Springfield by pre-election fibrillation.

Gov. Pat Quinn is treading thin political ice with an income tax increase proposal that sent fellow Democrats running, and recession-weary taxpayers retching. The Republican candidate for governor, state Sen. Bill Brady, has fueled the tax skepticism by promising a balanced budget "without raising taxes on families" — and so far also without revealing the details of whatever magic could be hidden up his sleeve.

The Legislature has left its own toolbox closed, leaving fiscal leadership to the person lucky enough, or perhaps unlucky enough, to be elected governor on Nov. 2.

The instructions in the common-sense manual for voting in this election, as for replacing a headlight, are pretty simple.

Step 1: Honestly decide what plan makes the most sense for fixing the state's dire economic predicament.

Step 2: Vote for a candidate who proposes it.

This is one case in which success depends entirely upon taking those steps in the correct order.