Our Opinion: Quinn, Brady need to clue us in on budget

Monday, September 20, 2010

Scott Lee Cohen remains the longest of long shots in the race for governor, but we’ll give him credit for honesty when he says, as he did last week, that he doesn’t have a clue how to fix the state’s $13 billion budget deficit.

“Sometimes having no knowledge and being wet behind the ears is better than having too much,” Cohen, who is running for governor as an independent, told The Associated Press last week.

Then there is Green Party candidate Rich Whitney. Like Cohen, Whitney is an underdog in this race, but he takes the opposite approach to the state’s financial woes. He presents on his website (www.whitneyforgov.org/issues/budget) a remarkably detailed plan that would not merely add few billion dollars to state coffers, but would also put the state on a fast road to financial health. His ideas include a tax on speculative transactions at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board Options Exchange that would raise $4.5 billion annually. A greenhouse gas “fee and dividend system” would bring in $5.5 billion. Legalizing and taxing marijuana would be another $200 million. And that’s just the start.

Cohen’s candor and Whitney’s innovation are admirable, in large part because of the vivid contrast they present from their major-party opponents. But electoral history shows that innovation and candor by independents and third-party candidates don’t translate to support at the polls.
(Whitney’s 10.36 percent in the 2006 governor’s race was considered nearly miraculous.)

With the election six weeks away, we still don’t know how either Gov. Pat Quinn or his Republican challenger, state Sen. Bill Brady, plan to address a structural deficit that promises only continued growth under current conditions.

Both Quinn and Brady are campaigning on plans they say will bring in more money. Quinn favors a 1 percentage point income tax increase. Brady advocates cutting 10 cents from every dollar in state spending. Either way, those ideas would raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 to $3 billion — enough perhaps to stave off drastic cuts in education funding for another year, but hardly solutions to head off what has become a decade-long trend.

If state finances were a house, this amounts to patching holes in the roof when it rains while ignoring the bulging foundation walls in the basement.

Comptroller Dan Hynes based much of his primary campaign on his plan to address not just short-term cash flow, but the state’s structural deficit. He advocated adoption of a progressive income tax system, an ambitious plan that would require a constitutional amendment. We endorsed Hynes on the Democratic side largely because of the plan, which we believe would bring Illinois’ 40-year-old tax system into the modern world. Votes in the Democratic primary rejected it.

Among Republicans, Sen. Kirk Dillard was the only candidate who strayed from standard talking points. “I may want to have tax policy changes where we go to a fairer tax …,” Dillard told us. Again, his candor on the need for fundamental change won our endorsement but, perhaps aided by a crowded ticket, may have cost him the nomination.

Last week, Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, blamed the state’s 1970s vintage tax system — which was based on an economy much heavier in income from manufacturing jobs — for a significant part of the state’s current predicament.

Yet to this point in the campaign, we’re not hearing plans related to addressing that from either of the major party candidates.

We’re 44 days out from the election. Voters deserve to hear how the presumptive next governor will shore up the foundation, not just patch the roof for the next rainstorm.

Thus far, we’ll give Cohen points for keen observation, if not eloquence, for his take on the situation: “Quinn don’t have a clue. Brady don’t have a clue.” We invite the candidates to prove otherwise.