Illinois legislators didn't earn their pay during the fall session last week.
To govern is to choose, meaning establishing priorities and working within limits.
But too often in Illinois, to govern means specifically refusing to choose, inaction that wards off potential problems at the polls for nervous legislators.
Problems, however, don't go away — they just get worse. So while not choosing usually works out at the polls in the short term for risk-averse legislators, it leads to bigger problems for Illinois in the long term.
Last week, the General Assembly chose not to even vote on — let alone pass — legislation on the state's underfunded public pensions. House Republican Leader Tom Cross has fashioned a plan that offers public employees three alternatives to the current unaffordable plan. But public employee unions threatened retaliation at the polls next year, so legislators took a pass.
If legislators don't want to address the pension bill in 2011 because of political considerations they certainly won't want to do so in the election year of 2012. Barring a surprise, that could well mean a two-year delay until 2013.
Legislators also are frozen on the question of gambling expansion, unsure what path to take after Gov. Pat Quinn announced that he'll veto the gambling expansion bill passed earlier this year that would increase the number of casinos, allow slot machines at race tracks and loosen government oversight in a way that will invite organized crime to infiltrate the industry.
Legislators tried to pass a compromise gambling expansion bill, but they couldn't get it out of committee because their plan doesn't satisfy enough members of the coalition that passed the earlier broader plan.
A plan to pass business tax breaks to keep Chicago's CME Group from leaving Illinois also fell apart when it threatened to become a Christmas-tree bill costing the state $100 million-plus in revenue when the state already is deeply in debt.
Very few of the issues facing members of the Illinois Senate and House are easy. Indeed, most are actually quite difficult, largely because Illinois is in such pitiful financial shape.
But there's a reason for that, too.
Take the pension issue.
State legislators intentionally underfunded the state's public pensions for years because they didn't have enough money both to fund the pensions and a variety of social programs. Now that the pension problems have grown so serious that they're forced to fund them, legislators don't have enough money to spend elsewhere.
Even January's huge state income tax increase hasn't been enough to bail the state out of its spending problems.
So legislators find themselves stuck. The only solution to the state's economic woes is for legislators to establish priorities and make tough choices, exactly what they don't want to do and so far are refusing to do.