Don Harmon is a friend of mine [Jack Crowe — nice guy, but dead wrong on Illinois, Viewpoints, Oct. 20]. Heck, we sit behind his lovely family at the St. Giles community mass. And when it comes to politics, Don’s heart is in the right place.
Unfortunately for us, Don is the exception in Illinois state politics. Here, political deals are often messy things put together by insiders for unknown reasons and are too often corrupt. And sadly for us, Don does not control Gov. Pat Quinn or House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Pat Quinn is a guppy among sharks. To ensure labor support in this election cycle, he cut a deal with state unions to not even think about reducing the number of state employees until 2012, even though the current employee head count is out of whack with the tax revenues the state brings in. Put another way, the state is not able to pay nonprofits, schools and universities because it first has to pay the salaries of employees in a super-sized bureaucracy.
Mike Madigan is bad for Illinois. He learned long ago what happens to Democratic state representatives who vote for tax increases. They end up in the minority. He is not going to let that happen again no matter what the consequences for the state, its pensioners, its schools or its nonprofits. And Don has it right. The Senate did approve a proposal to increase taxes, but the House, controlled by Madigan with a strong Democrat majority, failed to approve it. No one, not Don or any Democratic Party leader, is promising a different result after the fall elections.
As the Chicago Tribune reported in its endorsement of Bill Brady, Josh Barro, a public finance expert at the Manhattan Institute, said, “Unlike California, Illinois cannot blame its budget woes on a particularly volatile revenue system or an outsize exposure to the housing bubble. Illinois’ crisis is unique in that it is purely a creature of mismanagement by elected officials.” So why should voters return these people to power when we can only expect the same outcome?
Don is right that the state of Illinois is not technically bankrupt, but that is only because, as a matter of law, states can’t go bankrupt. They just stop paying their creditors, as Illinois has. Don does not believe that Illinois has borrowed too much. He says that Illinois is doing “routine … short-term borrowing for cash flow.” If only that were true. The $13 billion that it will borrow next year — and the more than $10 billion it borrowed last year, and the year before that — was for operating expenses. It’s like taking out a 30-year mortgage to pay your gas bill. It’s not sustainable and it robs from the future, particularly when our state constitution requires a balanced budget.
And don’t get me started on state pensions. In order to meet current state operating expenses, Illinois has over borrowed from the pot of money that used to be there to pay teacher and state employee pensions. At the same time, as Don acknowledges, the state has had to borrow money to meet its current contributions to those pension funds. Illinois has now put aside less than half the money it should have in its pension funds. The result is that Illinois is near the bottom of the heap for underfunded pensions.
I wish my concerns were merely Republican talking points. And I doubt that Don really believes our current level of state borrowing is defensible. He knows that the only way out of the current mess is to cut spending and increase taxes. Unfortunately, there are not enough people in the Democratic Party who agree with him. Democrats have not governed the state responsibly, and yet they ask the voters to do the responsible thing and re-elect them. Sadly for a lifelong Democrat, I reject that premise.
Don’s response did one thing. It made me realize that neither the Democratic-lead House nor Senate will stop the state from borrowing us into oblivion. We need a counterbalance to Madigan and Cullerton. That’s why I’ve decided to vote for Brady for governor instead of throwing away my vote on Scott Lee Cohen as a protest.
Jack Crowe is a third-generation Oak Parker. He cycles with the Lake and Harlem group, volunteers at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep in Austin.