Governor, rival take different approaches to Ill. budget crisis, but both avoid ugly details

Friday, September 17, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois voters are out of luck if they expect the candidates for governor to spell out which state services would be slashed and which would be spared in order to permanently close a gaping budget hole.

Will state parks close? Will poor people find it harder to qualify for medical care? Will Illinois stop providing job training for the disabled and counseling for troubled teens?

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bill Brady can't, or won't, provide those kinds of details. Brady even plays down the idea that painful sacrifice will be required in the face of the biggest budget crisis in Illinois history.

The two candidates are clear, however, on the general approach they'll use to fix the $13 billion problem.

Quinn has already cut billions in state spending and says he might cut more, while also pursuing a $3 billion income tax increase and continuing to let some bills go unpaid.

Brady absolutely rejects the idea of raising taxes. In fact, he wants to cut them, arguing that it would help the economy and ultimately produce more tax revenue. In the meantime, he promises to cut state spending by 10 percent.

"I think they're both being very candid. What they're not doing is being very detailed," said Steve Schnorf, who was budget director under Republican Govs. Jim Edgar and George Ryan.

Schnorf argues that by declaring their approach to the deficit, the candidates give voters the basic information they need.

Other budget-watchers disagree.

"I don't believe either of them has presented enough detail to even make us think they have a clue," said Joan Walters, another former Edgar budget director.

Several experts said their biggest worry isn't the lack of detail - it's the candidates' failure to convey the scope of the problem. They said the candidates should be preparing the public for massive cutbacks and government restructuring, not belt-tightening and a simple tax increase.

"Those are not the real options. The problem is much deeper, I believe," said R. Eden Martin, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. "I don't think anybody has been dishonest. I just think nobody has given a complete, clear description of the enormity of the problem."

Quinn bristles at any suggestion that he hasn't been clear. He often says he's the candidate who tells voters what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear.

He has put forward annual budgets and made decisions about which services to cut and what groups must wait longer to get state money. But many of those cuts are lumped under broad headings like "efficiency initiatives," leaving voters in the dark about exactly what they mean.

Quinn has been direct about favoring a tax increase, although he has wavered on the size and how the money should be used. His current plan is to raise the rate from 3 percent to 4 percent, with the money going to education and property tax relief.

Quinn has laid out other proposals, including massive borrowing, to keep state government running through the rest of the fiscal year. Legislators have approved some and rejected others, and they're likely to take another look at the ideas after the election.

As for a permanent budget fix, Quinn has taken action that he hopes will help, such as a major public works program that uses bond money and creates jobs. But he hasn't given voters a step-by-step plan for getting Illinois back in the black.

He wants to reduce spending but would preserve "vital education, health and public safety programs" - categories that cover most of the budget. While Quinn has taken steps to control pension costs, Illinois still faces huge and growing payments each year that leave little money for other needs. He relies on assumptions of job growth, added revenue and more federal assistance.

Brady has said even less about his plans. He did not, for instance, introduce legislation presenting an alternative to Quinn's budget this spring. He sometimes indicates he would cut spending across the board and other times says cuts would be more specific.

Brady often mentions long-term savings from overhauling the Medicaid program for the poor and pensions for government employees. But he has not proposed any specifics.

His general budget concept boils down to two parts: spending cuts, with details to be announced after he takes office, and reducing taxes by $1 billion in hopes of spurring economic growth.

"I just find Brady's budget proposal disingenuous at a very fundamental level," said Ralph Martire, head of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which supports an income tax increase and opposes most government cuts. "Brady has given us no opportunity to examine what he would do."

Brady's "one dime in every dollar" cuts would yield about $2.6 billion in savings - a lot of money but far short of closing the deficit. His other promise, to cut taxes, would actually add to the deficit in the short term.

Brady won't say what more he would do to balance the budget.
"I'm pretty precise. A dime in every dollar is pretty precise," Brady said last month.

A lawmaker for two decades and a member of the Legislature's budget-forecasting unit, Brady maintains that his full budget plan must wait until after he's elected and can scrutinize state spending. He has suggested the 10 percent cuts could be made largely by targeting waste, with no fundamental changes in government services and no layoffs.

John Tillman, CEO of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, said there's a simple reason Quinn and Brady avoid ugly details when they can: Each would use those details to attack the other.

"What I think is very clear to the people of Illinois is the pathway that each of gubernatorial candidates would choose," Tillman said.