Give us a real budget, not a credit card bill

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thousands of Illinois residents -- most of them taxpayers, we can safely assume -- rallied for higher taxes in Springfield on Wednesday.

Yes, you read that right.

Thousands of consenting adults are willing to pay higher taxes to keep the state from going bankrupt, and most importantly, to continue educating our kids, taking care of our sick and keeping up basic care for the needy.

We couldn't agree more and, unlike many of Wednesday's protesters, our own jobs in the private sector aren't even on the line.

The state faces a $13 billion deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and as much as we'd like to push it off to next year or pretend budget cuts are the sole solution, basic math tells us a tax increase must be part of the solution.

A cautious Gov. Quinn is backing a modest 1 percentage point increase in the income tax to generate an estimated $2.8 billion. It's not enough, still leaving the state with a $9 billion deficit. This page and others, including the right-leaning Civic Federation, have argued for a tax increase twice that size as an essential component of any real solution.

That solution, we strongly believe, must also include deep budget cuts and other reforms, such as the recently approved creation of a two-tier pension system for new state hires. We also support expanding the sales tax base to cover more services to better reflect our service-dominated economy.

But today, just two weeks before legislators hope to adjourn, there's little appetite in Springfield for anything resembling a real solution.

Instead, a makeshift six-month budget -- just long enough to get past the November election -- remains in play, thanks to an intransigent General Assembly led by House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Quinn is fighting for a real budget, as he should, but his latest proposals, released Tuesday, still rely too heavily on borrowing and lack the very deep budget cuts the state needs. We want to see his proposed $900 million in cuts grow by rooting out more inefficiencies in Medicaid, making more retired state employees pay their health-care costs, making state workers contribute more to their pensions and considering lowering their pension benefits -- a controversial idea, admittedly, but worth exploring.

We also support chipping away at a long list of more modest cuts that can add up to big savings, such as rolling back former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's free public transit rides for seniors. A Republican-led bill to limit those rides to only low-income seniors was defeated in a Senate committee Wednesday by Democrats.

That kind of intransigence -- an unwillingness to save money the state is literally giving away -- is why we're intrigued by a bill Quinn floated Tuesday to work around the Legislature. Though the particulars are in flux, Quinn's "Emergency Budget Act" would give him new powers for one year to make some unilateral budget decisions, with an eye toward finding an additional $400 million in budget cuts, according to Quinn's budget director.

The bill would, for example, let Quinn override the law that gives retired state employees free health care -- rather than wait for legislators to reverse the law. It also would let him roll back some entitlement programs if revenue falls short. Options include increasing co-pays or reducing benefits.

Given the General Assembly's profound unwillingness to do what's necessary to balance the budget, we're open to Quinn's idea.

Our first choice is responsible governing, particularly by those holding the power.

We're talking, of course, about Mike Madigan, who puts election success above all else, as well as Quinn, and the Republican leaders who refuse to consider an income tax increase.