Here's the bill
Government corruption is neither funny nor cheap.
There's a huge amount of public time and attention devoted to a brewing scandal in Illinois, perhaps because it's become a political issue in an increasingly contentious race for governor, between Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.
The attention is focused on $55 million in state grant funds squandered on the 2010 Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a program Quinn unveiled in the waning days of his successful 2010 election campaign against Republican state Sen. Bill Brady.
A subsequent audit, which has sparked dual federal and state criminal investigations as well as a highly partisan legislative inquiry, revealed a variety of administrative problems with the program, including the lack of records showing where the money went.
Politics aside, it's just more of the same in Illinois, like last year's federal indictments against a small army of political insiders that involved more abuse of state grant funds. Prosecutors have alleged that $16 million was lost in that escapade, but the number could rise as the criminal investigation continues.
As is often said about federal spending, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money."
So it is with corruption in Illinois. People see sums in the aggregate, but what's the overall cost to taxpayers of rotten and corrupt government in Illinois?
That's essentially unknowable. But a couple of professors — John Mikesell of Indiana University and Cheol Liu of City University of Hong Kong — decided to try to calculate the cost and came up with an answer.
Since it's impossible to know the players without a scorecard, the professors needed to know where to look. Naturally, that led them to Illinois. Based on a total number of federal public corruption convictions that occurred between 1976-2010, the Land of Lincoln ranks No. 3 on the list of the 10 most corrupt states.
(That conclusion is disappointing, but certainly no surprise. The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale conducted a public opinion poll earlier this year that found 89 percent of the registered voter respondents believe that corruption in common in Illinois.)
New York and California were No. 1 and No. 2, while Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and Louisiana rounded out the list.
The professors studied 25,000 federal corruption convictions between 1976 and 2008 and found that most government-related criminality involved either big-ticket items, like construction projects, or long-term spending where it is easier to hide costs, like borrowing or employee wage agreements.
The professors ultimately concluded that states with higher levels of corruption spent more than states with average levels of corruption, the difference being the corruption tax passed on to the citizens.
Illinois, they assert, would have spent 5.2 percent less between 1997 and 2008 if its politicians had been average, instead of excelling, in dishonesty. Per person, that's a corruption tax of $1,308 per person.
It could have been worse, but Illinois' corruption tax hardly qualifies as an affordable luxury. Indeed, it's a cancer on the body politic of Illinois that long ago undermined the public's faith in their political institutions, to the point that most people are past worrying about it.
The professors, of course, could be wrong. They took on a difficult assignment and came to a conclusion that, empirically, may be all wet.
But most people know intuitively that they're on to something, that this sloppy approach to governance — no matter whether it's outright corruption or ill-conceived policy decisions driven by political consideration — is killing Illinois.
Indeed, our dysfunction has, for all practical purposes, bankrupted state government and made Illinois a laughingstock, even if it's not at all funny.