Dan Corkery: 'Pay as you go': Advice for today's leaders

Dan Corkery: 'Pay as you go': Advice for today's leaders

The state of Illinois began this month with nearly $8 billion in unpaid bills. A year from now, the deadbeat's tab could grow to $10 billion, according to the comptroller's office.

Perhaps we could use a latter-day Paul Simon.

While known as a liberal Democrat, the late senator was also a champion for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That his home state — which has balanced-budget language in its 1970 Constitution (Article VIII, Section 2) — is grossly overspending its revenues shows how far the Land of Lincoln has drifted from the land of the lucid.

"The shorthand that he always used was that he was 'a pay-as-you-go Democrat,'" said John Jackson, a visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

"He believed that we ought to raise the revenue necessary to support the programs that we have every year, and that we should not get behind, and that we should not roll it over to the next year — and certainly not to the next generation."

Jackson — whose tenure at SIU began in 1969 and has included stints as dean, provost and chancellor — is intimately familiar with Simon's work. Four years ago, he assembled the late senator's writings into "The Essential Paul Simon: Timeless Lessons for Today's Politics." They first met in 1970, when the then-lieutenant governor spoke to Jackson's political science class.

Simon, who died in 2003 at 75, came by his values honestly. He was the son of low-paid Lutheran minister.

"He grew up in very Spartan circumstances and a frugal household," Jackson told me last week. "I think it was a part of what it means to be a Lutheran, and he took his religion very seriously. And I think that indelibly implanted those kinds of values in his whole makeup."

Some would even say he was cheap.

"He wore his clothes until he wore them out," he said. "He would wear suits that other people gave to him as a hand-me-down."

And his thrifty ways carried over into policy.

"While he was certainly liberal on programs — social programs, etc.," Jackson said, "he was also so felt very deeply that the people who make those decisions should go back to the voters and explain why they decided this program was worth supporting and what it's going to cost and that the total should add up to a balance every year."

The principle of a balanced budget has appeal: This is how much you have to spend, lawmakers. Make choices, which is what you were elected to do.

Would this country have entered the Iraq War if President George W. Bush had to propose a tax increase or spending cuts?

Would Illinois have taken "pension holidays" if the resulting debt had shown up on a year-end balance sheet?

In March 1994, Simon came close, with his proposed balanced-budget amendment falling four votes short in the Senate.

After Simon retired from office, other senators and congressmen have pursued similar legislation but with the same results.

One of the main arguments against a balanced-budget amendment is that it would be meaningless. Congress could formerly authorize a deficit, or it could just ignore the law. If so, the judiciary would be powerless to force tax hikes or spending cuts.

Illinois has certainly proven that red ink can't be erased by constitutional mandate.

What's needed are parsimonious lawmakers.

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com.

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sweet caroline wrote on July 18, 2016 at 10:07 am

Dan, you misspelled your own name in the headline.  It's Corkery, not Corkey.

Mike Howie wrote on July 18, 2016 at 11:07 am
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Thanks for the note. This wasn't Dan's fault, though. (And it's fixed.)

Mike Howie

online editor