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Commentary: Springfield's dance of the deadbeats

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 6, 2010 - It comes as no surprise that Illinois lawmakers who have ducked their way into a $13 billion deficit want to conga with tax dodgers.

Call it the dance of the deadbeats.

Once again, legislators have cowered from spending cuts and tax increases needed to attack a humongous backlog in payments promised to universities, school districts, businesses and service providers throughout the state. But they embraced amnesty for others who have failed to meet their obligations.

No penalties. No interest. Fork over the principal and get straight with your government and all those taxpayers who have been obeying the law. So much for the rhetoric about cracking down on lawbreakers. The roar mutates into a purr when confronting tax cheats.

Some proponents project the merciful maneuver could yield as much as $250 million for education and services for the needy. However, they overstate the positive and overlook the negative.

It has been just seven years since the last such initiative. In that brief interim, beefier enforcement efforts by the Department of Revenue have reaped nearly $200 million, thereby reducing the potential amnesty take. Moreover, in this flaccid economy, delinquent taxpayers could well find it less attractive and achievable to pay now and avoid penalties down the road.

Yes, even the more conservative net of $100 million envisioned by the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability would provide a short-term infusion to an anemic treasury. But do we simply shrug off long-term fiscal and moral implications?

After reviewing repeat amnesty initiatives in 27 states, researchers Hari Sharan Luitel at Minnesota's St. Cloud University and Russell S. Sobel at West Virginia University concluded they bring in fewer dollars and imperil future revenues by devaluing compliance.

In addition, tax analysts in Illinois have determined they essentially accelerate - and barely bolster - collections. Based on the 2003 experience, they surmise nearly 95 percent of the funds corralled in a 2010 amnesty exercise would come from taxpayers who eventually would have been tagged. Thus, the same so-called leaders who unblushingly tell struggling vendors to somehow survive an agonizing payment delay don't want the state to wait for what tax slackers owe it.

They are wagering dutiful Illinoisans will look past the insult to their own law-abiding behavior and credit incumbents for not raising their taxes - yet. We should disappoint them, and so should Gov. Pat Quinn.

The governor had the right instinct back in April. "You can't have amnesties all the time," he said. "After a while, people start to think that they'll just wait until the next amnesty. You have to be careful there."

Since then, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have rejected his call for an income tax increase. Because they lacked the courage to forthrightly address painful decisions on spending and revenues, they lateraled this steamiest of spuds to Quinn and gave him kingly authority over the state's coffers after booting his predecessor for, among other things, encroaching on legislative territory.

Amnesty would allow Quinn to modestly mitigate the impact of cuts as he battles to hold his job. Legislators in both parties have touted it, and the governor has demonstrated a tendency to melt under intense heat. But he should stay the course.

More than a half century ago, writer Jack Kerouac coined the phrase "Beat Generation" to describe non-conformists widely regarded as utterly irresponsible due to their views on sex and drugs. As the ill-conceived amnesty initiative and other fiscal folly have shown, this sadly has become the "deadbeat generation" in the Illinois General Assembly.

Let's mark 2010 as the beginning of its end.

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

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