State legislators face a twin challenge as they try to escape public blame while making tough budget choices.
Members of the Illinois House and Senate will have their hands full this week when they begin to pick their way through Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed $33.9 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Just by itself, the governor's proposal to close 60-plus facilities across the state presents a big headache to election-sensitive legislators. But even bigger problems — the multibillion-dollar public pension systems and a Medicaid program that could obliterate the rest of the budget — are shrouded in confusion.
Gov. Quinn is getting some criticism for his vague approach to those twin dilemmas.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar criticized Quinn's approach, stating it's the governor's job to lead and that requires specifics.
University of Illinois economics professor Fred Giertz said offering a budget plan that doesn't include specifics on pensions and Medicaid "doesn't make a lot of sense" because "that's where the money is."
Those points are well taken, and if Quinn was a stronger governor who commanded the respect of his fellow Democrats he might have offered more in the way of specifics. But he's seen his efforts to lead ignored in the past, so his reluctance to get out front is understandable.
Besides, to his credit, Quinn already has formed pension and Medicaid working groups made up of legislators and administration representatives to put together a package of recommendations.
No one should underestimate the difficult choices they face. Our debt-ridden state doesn't have nearly enough money to support all the programs it has on the books. Perhaps that's why the Chicago Tribune this week characterized Quinn's budget proposal as the first step in the "dismantling" of state government.
It's not just Quinn who's gun-shy. Democratic legislators spoke of the importance of a bipartisan approach to the budget issue, not because they want to work collegially with Republicans but because they want the GOP to share the blame.
With big majorities in both the House and Senate, Democrats don't need Republican votes to pass anything. But on the budget, they want Republican yes votes so that electorally vulnerable Democrats can vote no.
Naturally, Republicans resent being used in that fashion, especially when their minority status leaves them helpless on issues important to them.
So it's politics as much as policy that will drive the debate.
Here's a bit of policy that helps makes the politics so hard.
Public pensions are destroying the state's budget. This year's budget will require a $5.2 billion contribution, $1 billion more than last year. The state simply can't afford to keep throwing that much money into pension systems underfunded to the tune of more than $80 billion.
While protecting benefits current employees already have earned, will they prune back benefits yet to be earned? Will they shift the burden of funding pensions for university and school district employees to universities and school districts, a mandate that would force tuition increases and property tax hikes?
As for Medicaid, another budget sinkhole, Quinn is calling for a $2.7 billion cut and contends the system will collapse unless big changes are made.
What changes? Reductions in eligibility, cuts in payments to medical providers, limitations on services available to Medicaid recipients?
While Quinn and Co. wrestle with that, his administration is fighting with the Obama administration over its ruling that virtually any changes in Medicaid violate the provisions of Obamacare's national health rules.
To govern is to choose. These are tough choices that have been made especially tough because governors and legislators — Democrat and Republican — have for decades refused to choose to limit programs in the face of limited dollars.
Party time is over, and the hangover is a killer.