The Quad-City Times

Candidates' budget plans might fall short

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn and state Sen. Bill Brady are poles apart when it comes to solving Illinois’ budget problems, but their approaches do have one thing in common.

Neither appears to come close to addressing the massive deficit weighing down state government.

Brady, a Republican from Bloomington, has been pitching a plan to cut “a dime for every dollar” in state spending. But depending on the starting point, that may cut from $3 billion to $5 billion from the state’s $13 billion deficit
Quinn, a Democrat from Chicago, is backing an income tax increase mixed with some cuts. The higher taxes will bring in an estimated $3 billion.

Combine those shortfalls with a lack of details about what exactly they would cut, and their approach to budgeting has left many voters scratching their heads.

“I’ve never seen a campaign that’s so deceptive in terms of the underlying problems we face,” said political expert James Nowlan, a former state lawmaker and adviser to former governors. “It’s no wonder the trust and confidence in our elected officials is so low.”

Some observers say voters shouldn’t expect much more than the broad strokes from the two major party candidates as they head toward Nov. 2.

In political shorthand, Brady is for austerity and a new direction after eight years of Democratic control in Springfield, while Quinn wants a tax increase and continued state support of many existing programs.

“I think Quinn and Brady have made their positions very clear,” said Rick Winkel, a former Republican lawmaker who now works for the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “In a very real sense, this race is a referendum on what direction the people want the state to go.”

Brady, who has served in the state legislature for 16 years, said he can’t offer details about cuts because he doesn’t have access to all the numbers. But once he is elected, he said, he will go through the budget with experts to determine where spending can be reduced.

He has consistently repeated his mantra of cutting “a dime of every dollar” in the state budget, but arriving at an exact dollar figure of that savings remains elusive.

For example, there are billions of dollars in the state budget that come from the federal government. Once those are eliminated from the chopping block, how much savings will there be if 10 percent is cut?

If the base for cutting is $50 billion, Brady’s proposed cuts would save $5 billion. If that base is $30 billion, the savings would be $3 billion. Under either scenario, the $3 billion or $5 billion makes a dent in the state’s $13 billion deficit, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

Some voters don’t seem to mind the vagueness.

John Richardson, a part-time auction representative from Christian County, attended a Brady rally last week in Taylorville. He said he thinks the lack of detail is a pragmatic approach to take on the campaign trail.

“I’m sure he’s doing it to take less heat,” Richardson said.

Over the years, Brady’s attempts to cut state spending have often focused on the benefits that are provided to public-sector workers.

For more than a decade, he’s suggested that the state place new employees in 401(k)-style retirement programs because of the General Assembly’s failure to adequately fund its current pension program.

Opponents say the savings Brady thinks will occur if the programs were switched will not be there. A bill to make the change was introduced in 2007 but was not acted upon.

“I think that should be on the table to discuss,” Brady said at a campaign stop last week in Springfield.

In 2003, Brady led an unsuccessful push to downsize the pensions of state lawmakers.

Brady also has advocated moving more Medicaid recipients into managed care-style programs, saying it could reduce costs. His Democratic colleagues in the Senate say that’s already being done to a large extent.

Quinn’s budget plans are not much more specific. Like Brady, he also said he will reduce spending, but he is calling for an increase in the income tax to help chop away at the deficit.

That increase, if enacted by lawmakers, would bring in $3 billion.

Quinn said his $31 billion statewide construction program is designed to jump-start the idling economy by putting people back to work. That will result in more tax revenue flowing into the state’s coffers. Combine that with cuts, and Quinn said his plan will get the state back on fiscal track.

Nowlan said voters should not be naïve about the state’s financial woes, which are bigger than many people realize. Comptroller Dan Hynes, for example, said the next governor could face a deficit that has ballooned to $15 billion.

“The problems just can’t be resolved by cutting waste and corruption,” Nowlan said.