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Commentary: Christmas miracle won't help Springfield

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2009 - Just when we think they have scaled the heights of fiscal irresponsibility, our supposed leaders soar to new peaks.

So, even in this season of celebrating miracles, it is difficult to envision them forthrightly addressing, before the November election, a meltdown that prompted Moody's to rate Illinois' credit lower than any state except California. The collective unwillingness to elevate statesmanship above self-interest suggests our shameless State House gang will allow a pythonic deficit to squeeze the life out of this state for the next 11 months or longer.

Let seniors worry about losing services that keep them in their own homes instead of in facilities that erode their independence and consume more tax dollars.

Let waiting lists for mental-health counseling and substance-abuse treatment grow even if it leads to costlier institutionalization.

Let state workers confronting the tragic abuse of children fend for months without expense reimbursements.

Render struggling school districts less able to assure that their charges can compete on a global stage. Ditto for university students striving valiantly to become the first in their families to attain a bachelor's degree.

There is little to indicate otherwise, given the penchant of key state officials and their prospective competitors to value political calculus over the ability of tomorrow's workers to grasp algebra.

Remember the optimism in January when Pat Quinn succeeded Rod Blagojevich, whose recklessness begged insolvency? The budgetary monster could be banished along with its chief enabler, right? But the anticipated rescue morphed into a wreck.

Quinn, though displaying the courage to propose an income tax increase, failed to demonstrate the consistency, focus and savvy to win General Assembly backing in the spring for the combination of spending curbs and revenue boosts vital to closing a $12 billion deficit.

Then, according to conventional wisdom, the resuscitation was to occur in the fall after members of the House Democratic majority knew whether or not they would have stiff re-election competition. Instead, the governor and lawmakers in October blithely added $200 million for scholarships without revenues to support them.

Now Quinn forecasts a rebirth of responsible governance after the Feb. 2 primary. However, he will emerge from his battle with Dan Hynes as either the Democratic nominee facing Republican assaults for advocating significant tax hikes or a defeated, debilitated chief executive. And that means his resolve to press for potent deficit antidotes could well wither in the heat of a general-election contest, or lame duck status could strip him of the influence he needs to muster sufficient support for them.

Meanwhile, we certainly cannot rely on the legislative branch to bear fiscally healthy fruit.

Senate President John J. Cullerton rallied his Democratic troops to support tax increases in May without bringing Republicans to the table. If he had reached across the aisle, he might have been able to get a bipartisan solution addressing spending issues as well.

For his part, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan flexed his legendary discipline to suppress any good-government instincts that could stall his drive to build an even more muscular Democratic majority in his chamber.

For their part, most Republican lawmakers have refused to help solve a problem that reached epic proportions under Democratic reign - never mind that the future gets bleaker by the day for the young and old they claim to serve.

Ultimately, the citizens of Illinois must deal with the crisis of leadership that has bred and fed this budgetary disaster, choosing rational solutions like overhauling the way legislative districts are determined.

But what happens in the meantime?

The crew in Springfield prays for additional federal manna, a mere mirage when we need a minor miracle.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

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