A debtors' prison for deadbeat pols?

Maybe putting legislators in the clink is all that's left 

Too bad we don't have debtors' prisons anymore. They would be suitable lodgings for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and the rest who are responsible for Illinois' financial demise.

We could let Madigan, Gov. Pat Quinn, Senate PresidentJohn Cullerton and others who are responsible for stiffing thousands of Illinois suppliers for billions and billions of dollars fester there until they come up with a sensible way to pay the bills.

Sensible is not how I would describe the 75 percent (or any portion thereof) increase in personal income tax, the highest corporate income tax in the nation, and increased spending of the type that will please the public employee unions. It's as if we had been holding our breath until after the elections for Democrats to unveil a merely objectionable tax-and-spend plan to "solve" Illinois long-term financial problems, but they instead delivered unto the state Rosemary's Baby.

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Debtors' Prison

Before America did away with debtors' prisons in the 19th century, no one, including some Founding Fathers, was spared visits to the jug for unpaid debts. Among them were Robert Morris and James Wilson, signers of the Declaration of Independence. Light-Horse Harry Lee, a hero of the War of Independence and father of Robert E. Lee, also was imprisoned for unpaid debts.

Of course, those were individuals who owed private debts, sometimes amounting to less than a dollar. I've heard of no law that allows the jailing of public officials for wanton accumulation of debt, as satisfying as one might be. But, if we once could jail someone for even small private debts, then why shouldn't we be able to jail those responsible for piling up public debts amounting to billions — our money that has been so mishandled that it could take generations to pay it back?

Did you know that Illinois, Indiana and four other states allow debt collectors to get arrest warrants for debtors if all other collection methods fail? The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which published a series last year on the practice and its abuses, discovered that a judge had sentenced some poor mope in downstate Kenney, Ill., to "indefinite incarceration" until he coughed up $300 that he owed a lumberyard. I couldn't independently verify that action, but "indefinite incarceration" in the cooler for Madigan seems appropriate.

In my dream, there would be a law that would imprison public officials for such dereliction. Of course, that's impossible — the same buffoons in the Illinois Legislature and governor's office who would be subject to prosecution would be the same ones who would have to pass such a law. And then prosecute it. Can you imagine Attorney General Lisa Madigan bringing charges against her father, Speaker Madigan?

Sure, it's a dumb idea, but sometimes it seems like that's all that's left. The hard-pressed people and businesses of Illinois are desperate for some surcease and recourse. But as long as voters in Madigan's district and chumps in other Democratic precincts keep electing this batch of deadbeats, we'll be in arrears forever. The democratic process is the captive of a cabal of power-hungry, self-serving politicians and their greedy special interests — notably public employee unions.

This is no laughing matter for the hospitals, contractors, private social service agencies and a multitude of businesses that are owed billions. Their checks from the state are months late and some of these creditors are laying off people, stiffing their own suppliers, cutting back important state services for the indigent or even facing bankruptcy. Shouldn't they have better protection under the law?

Many state laws give creditors a variety of collection tools, among them foreclosure, repossession, garnishment and court orders. Part of the state's Revenue Department is a Debt Collection Bureau where there are procedures for getting people who owe the state money to pay up. Shouldn't the state's suppliers get an equal shot at collecting what the state owes them?

The pile of state debt has grown so mountainous that outgoing state Comptroller Dan Hynes — who is responsible for paying the state's bills — issued a public letter of apology to state creditors. He commended the creditors for continuing to work in good faith with the state. Maybe they no longer should. Maybe if they, en masse, began withholding services and supplies or seriously going after the state in the courts, the likes of Speaker Madigan would begin to notice. Clearly, nothing else is getting the legislators' attention, whether it is scolding by editorialists or growing outrage by an ignored public.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune

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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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