A Near Death Experience

This week began with the good news that the Illinois legislature had finally reached a (somewhat) bipartisan moment, putting the people of Illinois ahead of the Springfield power games that have been going on for two long years.

The state senate’s veto-proof passage of a budget appears to have saved Illinois from the calamity of being downgraded to junk bond status by S&P and Moody’s credit rating services. According to Moody’s, the downgrade was only days away – and I haven’t heard any credible argument that this prediction wasn’t true. Such a downgrade would have meant disastrously high interest rates for any future borrowing by our already debt-ravaged state. Something resembling bankruptcy would have become a much more likely possibility for Illinois. Time had run out.

Almost every observer knows, in honesty, that the two-year struggle to reach a budget agreement was continually sabotaged by ideological differences, personal politics and fragile egos. But, attempting to place 100% of the blame for the mess we’re now in on any individual or party is at this point not only unproductive, but inaccurate. – Although, I would say that the clearly personal agenda of Governor Rauner to enhance his national Republican credentials at the expense of Illinois’ most vulnerable citizens is reprehensible.

However, this didn’t start with Rauner. For instance, at the beginning of 2015, our Democratic controlled legislature allowed the state’s much-needed temporary 5% income tax rate to expire. Because of the years (actually decades) of mismanagement of the state’s retirement funds, we were already in a big budgeting hole. By not extending the 5% rate, overnight the personal income tax revenues projected for budget planning dropped by 25%! The legislative leaders knew this would harm people. So did the newly enthroned Governor Rauner. He could have put the state’s solvency first by immediately extending the 5% rate while initiating bipartisan budget discussions. – Instead our state has spent the past two years moving backwards, away from the potential gains that could have been.

But long before 2015, our present financial mess was underway with growing state employee pension funding shortfalls caused by bad decisions of political leaders from both parties. And here’s a piece of history affecting us today that I didn’t know about until last week when I read the July 4 Sun Times. A Sun Times columnist, Phil Kadner, revisited events that occurred in Springfield in 1997.  The state’s governor was Republican Jim Edgar. By today’s standards I guess he’d be considered a moderate. If for no other reason than on occasion he was willing to work in a bipartisan way for the good of the state. What a concept!

Anyway, the Governor won his office in 1994 by defeating Dawn Clark Netsch – an exceptionally smart, energetic, principled state legislator who would have been a terrific governor. I knocked on doors for her. As she campaigned, she spoke out about her strong belief that Illinois’ constitution declared the state had the “primary responsibility” for funding public education — but it wasn’t doing its job, and never had. She said Illinois needed to increase income taxes, both individual and corporate, so we could increase school funding. This would in turn allow us to lower property taxes. I remember how Governor Edgar belittled her campaign proposal. Then, after he defeated Dawn, he quickly adopted the position she had established.

Edgar proposed reforming our school funding and property tax system and pushed hard to line up votes on both sides of the aisle. As columnist Kadner remembers it, Governor Edgar had the assurances of Republican Senate President Pate Phillip that the votes were all lined up. Then, surprise! A freshman state senator, Christine Radogno (ironic eh?), voted against it and Jim Edgar’s bid to reform our state’s school funding and the property tax system died. Kadner stated his skepticism than no freshman legislator would vote against a powerful, old-school politician like Phillip unless he told her to. — I’m skeptical too.

So why am I rehashing the history behind Illinois’ continuing financial problems. Because, as you can see, none of the problems we’re now facing were inevitable or are now unsolvable. Our state has been blessed with unique geographic advantages, deep and diverse human resources and is home to highly successful business and educational institutions.

I have no doubt that Illinois can regain its footing and reach new heights of success. The crisis of operating without a state budget has been averted. Now I’m hoping that this “near death experience” will wake up all the players involved and they will  begin working together in a sincere search for what’s best for the millions of us living in every part of Illinois. We can’t let things get so far out of control ever again.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973

P.S. Future discussions and proposal can’t just be about new revenue. How our taxes are spent must also be discussed publicly, seriously and continuously. For example, there definitely are wasteful situations among the 7000+ government units in Illinois ripe for reform. Our legislators have tried to address this with committee hearings but each attempt has been met with NIMBY reactions. At this point, I believe the Governor should be urged to appoint a committee of respected and independent leaders and organizational experts from every corner of the state. This committee should take a hard, unbiased look at which of those 7000 units might be combined or eliminated. If we continue to avoid facing difficult realities we will never come close to reaching our potential.

There is an education bill in the Illinois Senate, SB1, that uses an evidence-based model to make funding fair for those that have been left behind, while making sure no school district loses money. This responsible solution enjoys support from nearly 150 superintendents and school districts across the state. To learn more about this worthwhile legislation click here.