Budget realities collide with politics for candidates on the campaign trail

Adrian G. Uribarri

January 19, 2010 @ 3:00 AM

Like an overdue credit-card bill, the balance has grown overwhelming.

Last summer, Illinois legislators grappled with a $9 billion deficit, struggled to cut enough spending and declined to raise taxes. So they borrowed cash to cover the state’s obligations.

Now, as the debt climbs and Illinois’ political races enter the general election, the question is: How will any candidate, Republican or Democrat, get beyond deep financial problems and political acrimony?

“I have never seen our state in this position, with everything pointing to zero,” says Democrat Donne Trotter, majority appropriations chair in the Illinois Senate. “The only number that’s rising is the deficit.”

Candidates from both major parties agree that the state cannot continue its current path, but they differ on the new road to prosperity.

Republicans contend that they could cut spending and hold the line on taxes, or even lower them. Democrats, despite recent associations with waste and corruption, propose that the solution is more taxes, not less.

Either way, political analysts warn that if something isn’t done soon, the result could be crippling to Illinois’ future.

“What we can’t keep doing is what we’re doing now,” says Mark J. Heyrman, a law professor at the University of Chicago and expert on the Illinois Legislature. “This is like someone who’s jumped off a hundred-story building, and when they get to the 50th story, they say, ‘I’m fine so far.’”

In December, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Illinois’ bonds, citing “large structural budget deficits, growing negative year-end fund balances, strained operating fund liquidity and mounting pressure from pension and retiree health benefit obligations.”

Both Gov. Pat Quinn and Comptroller Dan Hynes have advocated some form of income-tax hike to raise state revenue. Yet spokespeople for their campaigns said they were unable to make their candidates available for interviews about the state’s budget.

Political groups have noticed their reticence. For example, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ Council 31, a union representing more than 100,000 active and retired public-sector workers, declined to endorse either candidate.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the council, argued that Quinn nor Hynes has indicated sufficient support for “comprehensive tax reform.”

Illinois Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias, endorsed by AFSCME in November, says “revenue enhancements” are unavoidable.

“Without some sort of tax increase, it’s very difficult to balance the budget,” he says. “Quite frankly, the only taxes that would bring that kind of revenue are income taxes.”

Giannoulias and rival Democrat David Hoffman acknowledge the irony of Illinois Democrats asking taxpayers for more money. Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, arrested in 2008 and impeached last year, now faces corruption charges and a legacy as one of Illinois’ top squanderers.

Republican candidates have seized on misspending as evidence of Democratic incumbents’ unwillingness to rein in expenses. Yet in office, any Illinois Republican would face a tough fight against Democrats accustomed to powerful majorities.

Unfazed, Wheaton businessman Dan Proft says he could even cut taxes in half. This month, he drew sharp comparisons between himself and fellow Republican candidates, claiming that “what we do not share ... is a businesslike commitment to opposing tax hikes.”

“Increasing taxes is absolutely the worst policy choice we could make,” Proft said in an interview with the Current. “That is putting a gun to the head of business in the state and pulling the trigger.”

GOP candidate Kirk Dillard, a state senator, says he would “go through the budget line by line with a magnifying glass and scalpel,” rooting out waste such as Medicaid fraud.

But Heyrman says that approach would only go so far.

“God knows there’s waste,” he says, “but there isn’t $12 billion worth of waste, corruption and fraud. You can’t cut $12 billion worth of services.”

Trotter, in the Senate, says making cuts has become even more difficult as the economy sputters.

“The more people fall out of work, the more they need our services,” he says. “Though we as elected officials play the political game, it’s all of our constituencies that are hurting.”

This article appeared in the January 2010 edition of the Chicago Current. For home delivery, subscribe now.

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