Jim Dey: Spending more than we have

Jim Dey: Spending more than we have

The Springfield sausage-making factory grinds on, laboring mightily and so far producing very little in terms of the political compromise required when power is divided.

So far, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Legislature have failed to work out their differences, in the process accentuating their differences.

While expressing hope that a bipartisan deal can be worked out in the Senate, Gov. Rauner dismissed Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan's latest "compromise" proposal as a "last-minute attempt for House Democrats to. ...derail the senators who seem to be making progress."

In response, state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, one of Madigan's top lieutenants, expressed exasperation with a governor she characterized as beyond obstinate.

"I myself am feeling a bit at the end of my rope," she said, contending that House Democrats "are trying every avenue that we know to jump-start the process."

So far, Rauner and Madigan have been talking past each other during the budget and legislative reform negotiations that began in early 2015, shortly after Rauner took office. That's why Illinois is just a couple weeks away from failing to pass a permanent spending plan for three straight budget years.

Maybe it will get done this time. After all, the consequences of failing to do so are serious.

Maybe it won't. Politics often trumps policy in Illinois.

There's a third option. Maybe it doesn't matter if our elected officials work out a deal because, once the ink on the agreement is dry, they'll go about their usual practice of spending more than the state collects in tax revenue.

Consider a handful of recent news items that explain why the spending spigot is always on.

With Illinois effectively bankrupt, the Associated Press reports that the state Senate this week passed legislation that would provide "taxpayer matching funds for small contributions to political hopefuls."

"Spending would be capped at $50 million per election and participating candidates couldn't accept more than $500 from a single donor," the AP reports.

The legislation is backed by Evanston Democratic state Sen. Daniel Biss, who is running for his party's gubernatorial nomination on a spartan budget.

Remember now, Illinois is not just broke. It's buried under a mountain of debt. Yet the state Senate voted to create a new program to publicly fund legislative campaigns.

Here's another beauty.

Gov. Rauner and Speaker Madigan are at odds over changes Rauner would like to see in the workers' compensation law. Rauner contends it imposes excessive costs on businesses and discourages investment in Illinois, causing some businesses to leave and others to decline to expand or relocate here. Madigan doesn't agree.

Madigan's solution, contained in what he called a compromise package of legislation, is to create a "state-operated workers' compensation insurance company" to replace private insurers who handle workers' compensation.

A state-run insurance agency for workers' compensation? Illinois doesn't have enough on its plate? So it should create another new bureaucracy to go with all of its other bloated bureaucracies? Mon dieu!

It's pretty clear what Illinois really needs.

Legislators need to establish some clear rules and abide by them because the cost of not abiding by them would be ruinous. Sounds pretty good, eh?

That's what former Gov. Jim Edgar proposed in the early 1990s, according to a recent Eric Zorn column in The Chicago Tribune.

Edgar proposed to force the state to "tear up our credit cards" by proposing a 1 percent-a-month interest penalty on the state's overdue bills. He figured no one would be so stupid as to run up huge debts carrying an interest rate of 1 percent a month (12 percent a year).

State comptroller Susana Mendoza announced this week that Illinois' unpaid bill backlog has reached a record high — $14.3 billion. Included in those debts is about $1 billion in interest penalties.

It looks like Gov. Edgar was wrong when he thought state elected officials would be wary of sky-high interest rates on unpaid bills.

Here's another oldie-but-goodie from Edgar. Anyone remember his famous pension ramp?

It was bipartisan legislation passed in 1994 and aimed at eliminating the state's then-$15 billion public pension deficit. Edgar called the growing deficit a "time bomb in our retirement system that was going to go off in the first part of the 21st century" and said his proposal "defuses that time bomb."

The plan, passed unanimously, called for a 50-year repayment plan — through 2045 — that required the state to make extra payments to eliminate the pension under-funding. One flaw was that payments were artificially low in the early years and much higher in the later years.

Edgar's premise was similar to the one he cited on the interest rate issue. No governor or legislators would be so stupid as to play with fiscal dynamite by not sticking to the plan.

Wrong again. Legislators didn't follow the plan, consistently underfunding state pensions because they wanted to spend the money somewhere. The latest estimate for public pension under-funding is around $130 billion. The $15 billion figure Edgar described as a "time bomb" in 1994 now is nuclear.

The one consistent theme  here is the inability of legislators to come to grips with the fact that tax dollars are not unlimited. If something seems like a good idea, they vote to spend. If a previously agreed-to-measure limits their ability to spend, they ignore it.

So good luck with the so-called "grand bargain." If Rauner and legislators actually make a deal, fine. But that's only a start. They still have to abide by it.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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