Jack Crowe is a wonderful fellow. He is civic-minded and a genuine credit to Oak Park. However, Jack's recent column in Wednesday Journal recited too many incorrect and uninformed Republican talking points for me to ignore [Sending a message to state's deaf Democrats, Viewpoints, Sept. 29]. I have to set the record straight.
First, Illinois is not bankrupt. We have seen a precipitous drop in state revenues as a result of the international economic meltdown, but we are hardly alone — almost every state faces similar budget woes. Illinois state government relies primarily on the individual income tax and the sales tax. Three years ago, we reasonably predicted that revenue would increase by $1.5 billion. Instead, the bottom fell out of the economy during the last year of the Bush administration, and revenue fell by $2.5 billion. This $4 billion swing in a single year resulted in a backlog of unpaid bills and cuts to critical programs. It is not pleasant, but it was not the result of legislative action or inaction.
Second, Illinois does not today owe "creditors" anywhere near the $140 billion that Jack claims. This is absurd. We do owe an embarrassing amount in unpaid bills — almost $5.5 billion. But one can only arrive at Jack's ridiculously inflated figure by counting every bond payment, pension payment and medical bill the state will pay over the next 40 years. Most of these payments won't come due for decades, and we have already identified the revenues from which many will be paid. By Jack's logic, I am personally millions of dollars in debt, because today I do not have cash in the bank to pay off my mortgage, pay my property taxes for the next 40 years, put three grade-school-age children through college, fund my retirement and pay for nursing home care. These are all obligations I plan to fulfill, but I'm not fretting because I haven't yet paid them in full.
Jack says we lawmakers won't cut spending, won't raise taxes and are trying to borrow our way out if it. To the contrary, we cut $3.7 billion in programs and spending on state operations and we directed the governor to make billions more in cuts. We continue to do the routine, responsible borrowing we do in good years and bad — short-term borrowing for cash flow and long-term borrowing to finance capital investments. The only extraordinary borrowing we've done was to satisfy our obligations to fund pensions. This, too, was done responsibly — if you can borrow money at 4 percent to pay off a debt that's costing you 8.5 percent interest, I urge you to do it. It is like refinancing your home mortgage when rates fall.
Voters overwhelmingly oppose raising taxes — perhaps they've been convinced by the bleating of Republican candidates and certain major newspapers who claim incredibly that we can balance our budget in one year by reducing revenue and cutting services. Most of us, however — legislators and taxpayers alike — know that we can't simply cut our way out of this, and, frankly, most taxpayers don't want the government services they depend on to be cut. Illinois needs a modernized revenue system that reforms our outdated practices. Democrats in the state Senate approved a measure to adjust the income tax rate, make our sales tax more like those of our neighboring states and reduce property taxes. A similar measure fell a few votes short in the House, primarily because not a single Republican was willing to support it.
Jack is just wrong — Democrats have cut billions from the budget, reformed spending priorities and tried to modernize an out-of-date tax structure. We have more work to do, but we've passed several key fiscally responsible measures, like rebidding all state contracts and adopting new budget methods that hold state agencies accountable for the results they achieve, not just for the money they spend. And Jack's solution? Vote against the Democrats? Dump Pat Quinn for Scott Lee Cohen? Pat Quinn is an honest, hardworking guy who took office under the worst of circumstances and is trying to steer the state through the foulest economy since the Great Depression. Jack, you're going to dump Pat Quinn and vote for an accused wife-beating pawnbroker whose idea of a job fair is to recruit people into Ponzi rackets and pyramid schemes? Jack, have you lost your mind?
At least you're not planning to vote for stealth-Republican candidate Bill Brady, whose campaign strategy is primarily not being Pat Quinn and not letting voters find out about his ultra-conservative positions — rolling back the minimum wage, ending equal pay for women, eliminating a woman's right to choose in all cases, reinstating the death penalty, constitutionally outlawing civil unions and permitting the mass execution of stray dogs and cats, just to name a few. Remember, it is the George Bush-Republicans who got us into this mess, and the George Bush-Republicans who are doing everything in their power to frustrate President Obama's efforts to steer the nation out of the damage they inflicted. Jack, do you really want to replace Illinois government with a "Bush-without-the-charm" administration?
Jack, you want to send a message to Democrats? Here's how you send a message: vote for Democrats, top to bottom. You will send two clear messages. One, you want Democrats to fix this mess without looking for Republicans to provide bipartisan "political cover." Two, you support President Obama and you trust Democrats to provide Democratic solutions that protect working families and help people most in need. You support educating our children and putting people back to work.
Jack, if you try to send a message by voting Democrats out of office, you'll have to live with the consequences. You will empower all the anti-Obama "tea party" activists of the world. You'll be responsible for the slash-and-burn, Bush-retread Republican "solutions" that will cut education funding, cut social service funding and throw people off the health care rolls. Also, we can afford tax breaks for the richest among us. That's some message.
Don Harmon is an Illinois state senator, 39th District, assistant Senate majority leader and Democratic committeeman who lives in Oak Park.
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