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Commentary: Illinois ignores red ink at its peril

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2008 - Illinois is drifting toward a mediocrity that could deny our kids and grandkids the economic opportunity and quality of life that have lifted generation after generation in this heartland hub. Yet, most residents do not sense the urgency, do not understand the depth and breadth of an unprecedented budgetary meltdown and do not trust their leaders any more than their leaders trust each other.

State government has borrowed billions from future wage-earners, used one-time revenues for ongoing expenses and shamelessly delayed payments to service providers for months and months – all so Gov. Rod Blagojevich could dramatically expand government-paid health care and boost school funding while demonizing tax increases to support those causes. Now, as the backlog of unpaid bills soars toward $5 billion, the jarring, revenue-eroding recession is hastening an entirely predictable reckoning.

Because too many politicians have chosen sweet talk over straight talk, Illinoisans overwhelmingly believe we can provide adequate K-12 funding, assure higher education accessibility to the less affluent, preserve parks and historic sites, respond comprehensively to mental illness, arrest and imprison violent offenders, combat methamphetamine, heroin and crack cocaine, keep faith with retired public employees and rehabilitate the state treasury simply by curtailing raises for legislators, firing political hacks, grounding the governor’s plane and doing some surgical snipping here and there. 

But the far less soothing reality is that we could make legislators serve for free and barely ding the deficit. We could shutter five universities and close down departments that patrol our highways, guard and conserve our natural resources, serve senior citizens and veterans and protect the public health – and still not eradicate the red ink, let alone protect and invest in our children and in the roads, bridges and other infrastructure vital to economic development.

More than 90 percent of general revenue funds support education, health care, services for the needy, law enforcement and pensions. Even while in the grip of an unemployment-escalating, insecurity-abetting economy, can we diminish or even continue to tolerate substandard resources for youngsters in any corner of Illinois and abide academic achievement gaps between whites and burgeoning minorities without ultimately yielding good jobs to other states and countries that offer better educated and trained workers?

Can we gut already insufficient funding for community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment without betraying our shared humanity, allowing potentially productive citizens to become chronically dependent and filling our jails and prisons at far greater cost to taxpayers?

We should excise spending excesses, resist new government initiatives until we fund existing ones and insist on reforms and better results, especially in education. But Illinois is not going to regain sound fiscal footing and well serve coming generations without a regimen of tax increases and budgetary discipline.

To move forward resolutely will require courageous, forthright and cooperative leadership – in other words, the opposite of the paralyzing dysfunction that has marked and marred the past several years. It will not be easy, given the toxic breakdown of trust among the key players and the public’s disgust with them. But all of us who want a first-rate state must demand a new attitude in Springfield.

Indeed, this is an opportune moment for Blagojevich, who deserves most of the blame for the mess, to become gubernatorial at long last. However, if he cannot rise to the occasion, bipartisan legislative majorities, facilitated by promising, fresh leadership in the Senate, must rise above him. Otherwise, Illinois will be insolvent and irrelevant in a world that easily could leave it behind.

About the author

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He joined the institute as associate director in 1997 and became director after the death of Paul Simon in December 2003.  In addition to serving as director, he taught classes in both the political science and journalism departments.

Prior to joining SIU, Lawrence was press secretary and senior policy adviser to Gov. Jim Edgar for nearly a decade.  He joined Edgar's staff after working as a journalist for 25 years.  During his newspaper career, he specialized in Illinois state government and politics.  Lawrence served stints as managing editor and editorial page editor of the Quad-City Times and wrote a political column that was syndicated to more than 40 newspapers in Illinois.

Lawrence capped his newspaper career as chief of the state capital bureaus for Lee Enterprises and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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