Halfway to nowhere

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mayor Richard Daley spoke for many Illinoisans Monday when he evoked a "Springfield bubble" in which lawmakers are oblivious to the economy around them and unwilling to bleed inefficiencies out of their operations. His government's latest economizing involves asking vendors to renegotiate their contracts with a goal of cutting the city's costs. Last week he announced an audit of health benefit rolls to purge ineligible employees or dependents — people who aren't entitled to city-paid medical care but who receive it courtesy of taxpayers.

And what do you hear from Springfield? Whispers that Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have no hope of crafting a spending plan for the next year. So they might pass a six-month budget and hope nobody notices their utter failure to do their jobs.

A three-bullet salute:

• Illinois legislators, you run a severely insolvent enterprise. You have created immense spending obligations and now can't pay for them. You've turned this state into an untrustworthy deadbeat.

• In response, you are doing next to nothing — for the second year in a row — to make state government run economically. Evidently you're praying that an economic recovery will give you enough new revenue to restore business as usual.

• Even if that happens, it won't fix what you've wrought. Remember, your "business as usual" is a huge part of why Illinois is broke and broken. State government was billions in arrears before the Great Recession fully sank its teeth into the nearly 13 million people who live here.

What to do now?

Yes, you do have foolish routes of escape from your maze. You can follow Quinn's advice and borrow still more billions, the better to see how much of a premium bond buyers will demand because of Illinois' second-worst-in-America bond rating. (Our condolences to comatose California.)

Or, with equal irresponsibility, you can pass a six-month budget and delay any real decisions until after the November election. This one strikes us as a suicide attempt. Given that your most crucial task in Springfield each year is approving an annual budget, imagine telling voters that you collected all your legislative paychecks — but couldn't do Job One.

Laurence Msall of Chicago's Civic Federation puts it well: "The bond rating agencies are telling lawmakers to develop a long-term plan for addressing the deficit, paying old bills and confronting pension liabilities. A six-month budget would be the exact opposite of what Illinois needs to do to avoid a further downgrading." What's more, a partial-year budget would be a terrible disservice to school districts, other governments and social service providers that rely on state payouts. How are they supposed to balance their budgets if you won't even write yours?

Legislators, you've had an enormous amount of time to fundamentally change how Illinois conducts its numerous business affairs. Yet citizens haven't seen you take the kinds of sensible steps that thousands of private-sector employers in this state have taken. If you had, we'd have read oodles about moving most Medicaid patients to managed care, privatizing services, reducing current employees' benefits and otherwise implementing the long lists of proposals promulgated by the Civic Federation, the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Illinois Policy Institute, the governor's Taxpayer Action Board and other responsible voices.

Instead, in 2009 and 2010 you've done … what? Msall tells us he keeps asking many of you to identify even one state program you've eliminated since the start of this recession. Even one. All he gets is silence.

No single idea can erase the terrible indebtedness that Illinois faces — and that worsens every day. But that's no excuse for not embracing the dozens of constructive ideas that would reinvent how Illinois conducts its affairs. Doing so — pension reforms included — would save many billions of dollars this year and in succeeding years.

Legislators, if your plan really is to cynically keep stalling and then pass a partial-year budget, just tell all of us now. You are fiddling while Illinois burns. If this continues, citizens will need to elect a General Assembly that at least knows how to pass a yearly budget.