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Commentary: Illinois continues its tax holiday from reality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 18, 2010 - We need to scrutinize the gifts Illinois' elected officials bestow as well as those they improperly accept or extort.

Greedy governors have embarrassed us. Pandering politicians have buried us - with our acquiescence if not our blessings.

Each day Illinois sinks deeper into smothering quicksand. A report issued this month by Comptroller Dan Hynes concluded Illinois has never been as fiscally frail. The state has built a backlog of nearly $5 billion in unpaid bills. Gov. Pat Quinn proposes still more borrowing as our credit rating tanks.

Yet, the Democratic chief executive and bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly have declared a sales-tax holiday from Aug. 6 through Aug. 15 on back-to-school purchases.

It could slice state income by $60 million, but what the heck?

So what if it reinforces the reality-defying view that we can escape this fiscal mess without the pain of raising taxes and slashing services?

Quinn can tout it on the campaign trail along with Republican gubernatorial nominee, Sen. Bill Brady, and other lawmakers who voted for it. Shoppers and shops will embrace it without questioning its impact on a state careening toward insolvency.

After all, Rod Blagojevich reaped kudos and votes for expanding health care and early childhood education even though he funded them through billions in borrowing and hocus pocus.

"We want to make sure that all of our kids are ready to learn, they have all the equipment they need, all the supplies they need, that they're properly clothed," Quinn avers.

Never mind that many of these kids will find themselves in larger classes staffed by instructors lacking state-of-the-art teaching tools. Never mind that many will come to the classroom with personal and family problems that go unattended because mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment services are being curtailed. Never mind that they will bear the burden for the excesses of yesterday and today if they are fortunate enough to become working adults.

"By having this program of holiday and exemption, we anticipate that many, many consumers and shoppers will use this time to shop for all kinds of items, create new jobs for people who are in the retail sector and also create more revenue for the state of Illinois," Quinn says.

Never mind that the failure of our leaders to make difficult spending and revenue decisions has eliminated or put at risk tens of thousands of jobs in teaching, in state and local agencies that attend to the needy and in small businesses that wait month after month for payment from Illinois' biggest deadbeat.

Never mind that retailers are unlikely to hire permanent employees in response to a temporary crush of customers. Never mind that Illinoisans would have to spend as much as $1 billion more on non-exempt items to offset the revenue loss. Never mind that the Tax Foundation in Florida - a state Quinn cited as a model - found similar holidays there and elsewhere produced points for politicians but not jobs and revenue spikes.

"I think this is a landmark day for our state," the governor said as he signed and celebrated the tax-break legislation.

Wrong.

It will be a landmark day when citizens challenge fiscal folly as vigorously as they oppose hefty pay raises for gubernatorial staffers. It will be a landmark day when a State House crew, prodded by an informed and engaged public, does what is necessary to pay today's bills and secure the future for tomorrow's citizens.

Not until then.

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

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