Illinois' Champagne taste with a beer budget

Briefcase Full of Cash

The root of Illinois' budget problems: Where's mine?

Nice try, governor, but when you asked the people of Illinois how to
balance the state budget, you got thousands of responses, but not one
that I could see who said cut my services or raise my taxes.

Cut
education, but not health care. Increase school spending; trim social
services. Raise taxes, but only on the rich. Cut taxes to bring business
back.

Some of those posting their solutions on budget.illinois.gov, Gov. Pat Quinn's Web site, had a
narrower focus: "Pass a law that all sourveniers (sic) and other items
sold at State owned (sic) parks, museums. Etc. must be made in Illinois,
and where that is not possible, must be made in the U.S.A."

Some
constituencies tried organizing. The arts lobby, for example, posted
more than its share of these: "Do not cut the arts ... they are the only
thing (sic) keeping some students interested in school at all. ..."

How
Quinn is supposed to make any sense of all this is beyond me, but
undoubtedly he has some state employees trying to figure it out -- which
will add, however microscopically, to the budget problem.

Quinn's
exercise in direct democracy illustrates how everyone's paws are in the
state budget. the "2010 Illinois Piglet Book," a joint project of the
Illinois Policy Institute and Citizens Against Government Waste, lists
$6,500 for fishing seminars using a 40-foot-long tank of live bass,
$353,165 to help build a motor sports park in northwestern Illinois,
$10,000 for a Batman party thrown for a movie director, $1,100 for
Hawaiian party props, $78,066 for quail promotion, thousands to
subsidize beauty schools, $1.4 million for diversifying higher education
faculties, $104,271 for the Nature Conservancy, $3.5 million for the
Chicago Tourism and Convention Bureau (undoubtedly to carry on its great
work of attracting big shows to McCormick Place), and $78
million for horseracing interests. Some spending listed in the book
clearly is altruistic, such as millions given to Easter Seals agencies around the
state. But we can argue about whether this should be the role of a
figuratively bankrupt state.

The researchers calculated that the
list of pork projects goes on to the tune of $350 million. Now, cutting
$350 million obviously won't fill a $12.8 billion hole. But the list
demonstrates that for every dollar spent, there's someone who thought it
was a good enough idea to pitch it to the state and someone in the
state who thought it was good enough to fund it. Not just to fund it,
but to pay for it with taxpayer dollars because somehow it benefits the
common good. Or, because it benefits someone's good.

Even if $350
million is magically cut from the budget, a $12-billion-plus deficit
remains, serious money, indeed. Advocates, activists, proponents,
crusaders and spokesmen of all stripes warn of dire consequences of
seriously whacking at that deficit. So, we're left with the question:
Just how much spending is enough? Would losing 10,000 public school
teachers from a statewide public school work force of more than 130,000
be a larger catastrophe for our children and grandchildren than leaving
them with a state that's a fiscal wreck? What's worse, leaving them with
crushing debt payments from our trying to borrow our way out of this
fix, or increasing the average class size by one? The number of
full-time school administrators increased 6.3 percent last year over
2008 (Chicago's increase then was 43 percent, probably due to a counting
error, we're told), according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Would the state's children have sunk into a swamp of ignorance without
the increase?

I'm not trying to pick on teachers. Education
funding accounts only for about a quarter of state spending. State
spending in general roared ahead 39 percent (after inflation) from 1998
to 2008, while the population increased only 6.8 percent, according to
the Illinois Policy Institute.

The truth is that much of what the
state spends is for things that someone in Illinois wants. If we're to
come anywhere close to balancing the budget, it will require more than a
debate over bigger cuts versus higher taxes. It will require a
fundamental downsizing of our expectations of what we, ourselves, can
milk from the government.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune

Comments

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  • Maybe you big shots in Springfield don't get it but we do.You don't have the money for any extra anything.Now the fine people of Illinois know it's belt tightening time.We know things will be tough for a while so get to it and stop spending what you do not have.The people that will do the most bitching are going to be those who are the biggest takers,to bad we are all going to get hurt so lets get on with it so we can get back on our feet ASAP.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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