- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

February 12, 2017

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

Illinois leaders need to get on same page

Another day down, another day the state is without a budget. Such is life in Illinois.

And, the end doesn’t appear to be anywhere in sight. But, one thing is for certain: The longer we’re in this mess, the longer it’s going to take to get out of this mess.



We had a chance to sit down this week with Gov. Bruce Rauner and Comptroller Susana Mendoza. The two couldn’t have more contrasting views on the situation if they tried.

“I’m frustrated, but I’m optimistic,” Rauner said Tuesday in a sit-down with The Southern’s editorial board. “I think we’re finally starting to make genuine progress.”

But, then Wednesday, Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat, ordered up votes on pieces of legislation that make up the “grand bargain” he negotiated with Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Republican. Three of the four minor measures called to vote passed. However, support came only from Democrats on legislation that was supposed to win bipartisan support.

Radogno accused Cullerton of a “breach of our agreement,” according to an Associated Press story, saying the entire package was supposed to be ready before counting votes.

It’s fairly obvious that our leaders aren’t on the same page here - they’re barely in the same book - which is mighty sad considering where we are in this impasse.

“When (Rauner) got elected, it’d be unfair to say that he created this crisis,” Mendoza said Thursday in an interview with the editorial board. “But he was elected to make this crisis better. Now, it’s only become monumentally enhanced.”

This impasse is no longer a nebulous problem. It affects real people in Illinois. It affects every citizen of this state.

Two weeks ago, The Southern and its sister papers in Illinois did a series of stories on the many people affected by this crisis.

The plight of Illinois citizens is not new. We’ve heard similar stories for the past two years. We’re all weary from the lack of action. We’re all tired of the finger-pointing and trying to figure out who to blame.

At this point, it doesn’t matter who or what is to blame. The people of this state are paying for problem they didn’t ask for.

Fix it, and fix it soon.

When and if a budget is passed, it’s going to be the people of the state that are going to be paying for it.

A report this week released by the nonprofit Civic Federation said the state would have to slash spending by more than 26 percent to balance next year’s budget through cuts alone. That’s big chunk to cut, and surely it would hurt.

Right now the state has about $11 billion in unpaid bills.

We’re getting to the point where something has to be done. The legislature needs to put aside political agendas, and put together a bipartisan plan that will work to get this state on the road to recovery.

That road is going to be long enough, so let’s start traveling that way. There needs to be more of a sense of urgency. If a shutdown provides that, then so be it.

“It’s simple math,” Rauner said. “We can’t have balanced budgets unless our economy grows as fast as government spending grows. It’s just math. It’s not rocket science.”

Well, if it’s not rocket science, why isn’t a deal done?

Fix it, and fix it soon.

___

February 12, 2017

The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

Rauner right to hold firm on state budget

Bruce Rauner may be in his first term of his first-ever elected office, but he’s certainly gotten the hang of how to connect with rank-and-file voters in downstate Illinois.

It’s a lesson more seasoned lawmakers should heed.

With a couple of exceptions, it’s been years since Illinois had a governor who didn’t spend the better part of his time either in the air, headed to Chicago, or on the road, headed to Chicago.

But Rauner - who’s from Chicago - lives most of the time in Springfield, even as he and his wife Diana prepare to move from the Executive Mansion to the director’s house on the grounds of the Illinois State Fairgrounds while the mansion undergoes a much-needed (and privately funded) renovation.

As he made clear in a meeting last week with The Pantagraph Editorial Board, the governor is holding firm in his belief that Illinois must have and can have a balanced budget, and that “structural change” is needed to get the state back on track in the long term.

Among the contested pieces of that plan are property tax relief, term limits, workers’ compensation reform and tort reform.

The takeaway? He’s accessible, fiscally prudent and understands that the way it’s always been done is no longer the way to get things done. It’s among the reasons he’s having such a difficult time with legislative leaders, most notably entrenched House Speaker Michael Madigan, in getting his hands on a balanced budget plan.

Rauner is a very successful businessman. But business acumen only gets you so far without the ability to get along with all sorts of people and the ability to be tough when needed.

In Illinois, that knowledge and skill-set should be used to balance a budget and provide equitable education to all students. Instead, Rauner also has to focus on Madigan, the powerful Democrat leader who successfully plies the art of old-fashioned politicking he learned from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Rauner isn’t backing down, as he made clear to the editorial board. He knows the numbers, he knows the programs and he knows what he thinks will bring Illinois back from the financial brink.

As he was speaking at that meeting Wednesday in Bloomington, members of the Illinois Senate were picking apart a budget proposal built on compromise.

Not surprisingly, the overall bill failed because the parties couldn’t decide whether to vote piecemeal, or to vote on a finished budget.

The people of Illinois want their state to be successful and they voted in a successful businessman to take over the job. Rauner is able and wants to do that job, but needs the people’s staff - our state lawmakers - to make the same commitment.

___

February 11, 2017

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

Budget options would help Illinois determine best path forward

Illinois lawmakers have for decades abdicated their responsibility to the future.

Year after year after year they spent more than the state took in. They skipped or shortchanged pension payments. They dug a hole of debt, and even as it got deeper, never thought about what it would take it fill it back in.

Except …;

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

He wasn’t talking about Illinois’ finances, but that quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln - who was born 208 years ago Sunday - seems prescient. The sins of reckless spending and inaction are upon the state. Illinois is beyond broke. The stack of unpaid bills totals about $11 billion. The unfunded pension liability is about $130 billion. The state’s bond ratings are just above junk status. Residents are fleeing in droves. Lawmakers haven’t even bothered to approve an annual spending plan since 2015.

Illinois can no longer keep trying to escape its tomorrows. No one expects a turnaround overnight: It took decades to get here, it’s going to take time to right the course. But the sooner change starts, the faster we reach some semblance of stability.

There have been hopeful signs. Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radogno introduced a “grand bargain” budget proposal of 12 interlocking measures that would start the journey of getting the state back on firmer financial ground. The plan - still making its way through the Senate - wouldn’t end this fiscal year with a balanced budget, but Cullerton has said it would provide the framework for a balanced budget by June 2018, the end of the next fiscal year.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget address is set for Wednesday for that same fiscal year. Cullerton was onto something when he said during a speech at the City Club of Chicago that if Rauner presents a balanced budget proposal, Illinoisans will have two plans to consider and can determine which one is the best path forward.

Granted, balanced budgets are almost a misnomer in Illinois. Few have ever truly been balanced. Even determining whose responsibility it is is debatable: The constitution says the governor is required to submit a balanced budget. It also says the legislature must pass a balanced budget. If it doesn’t arrive balanced, the governor could use his considerable veto powers to get it into shape. Of course, if they have the votes, lawmakers can overturn those vetoes.

Wednesday will be the third budget address Rauner has given since being elected. His 2015 proposal appeared balanced, but it anticipated savings from pension reform that the courts struck down. Lawmakers in turn sent him a budget that spent about $4 billion more than the state had. In 2016, he proposed a budget that acknowledged a revenue hole, saying he’d agree to new taxes if the legislature would agree to his business proposals. When that didn’t work, he asked for the ability to make cuts himself, but the legislature blocked that, too.

Rauner has indicated that he may take a similar approach in this year’s budget address. He should instead present a detailed plan so we can have two plans - his and the Senate’s - to consider.

The governor is correct that the state needs structural changes. For too long, too much has been relegated to the can’t-fix-it bucket instead of addressed.

The governor told the SJ-R editorial board last week that given the level of debt and the unfunded pension obligation, cutting alone will not be sufficient to solve the state’s problems. Illinois also can’t tax its way out. The state must instead grow its way out, he said, by making Illinois competitive and attractive to job creators. Given the state’s location and its transportation infrastructure, there’s no reason that can’t happen, he stressed.

Agreed. So what should be cut? Which revenues does he want to increase? How do we use the state’s universities and colleges to provide a strong, educated workforce? If he wants lawmakers to work with him on achieving his vision, they need to know what he wants.

He’s going to take flack if he puts his ideas out there. He can join Cullerton and Radogno, who have been bombarded with criticism since unveiling their plan a month ago. No one said it was easy to be politically courageous.

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” Lincoln would be disappointed in today’s legislators for not realizing this sooner. Yet today, as we remember perhaps the state’s greatest resident ever, lawmakers could work on restoring honor by vowing to end the exercise in idiocracy Illinois has been mired in for too long.

___

February 12, 2017

Chicago Tribune

Illinois has the wrong legislature: Too many risk-averse pols

As a potential budget compromise moved through the Illinois Senate last week, a funny thing happened. Senators were forced to vote. Green button or red button. Choose.

That was the idea behind Senate President John Cullerton’s decision to put four bills up on the board, even though Republicans weren’t ready. Many of GOP leader Christine Radogno’s Republican members voted “present” as a form of protest against a controversial 12-bill package that, if passed, would go to the House.

But by week’s end the action - inaction, really - led to one conclusion:

Illinois has the wrong legislature. Pols eager to curry favor with interest groups (and to get re-elected) created the Illinois debacle. Citizen-lawmakers who serve for a while and head home? Not so much in Illinois. The Capitol has too many careerists afraid to risk their cushy part-time jobs. They keep index fingers poised upward, testing the winds. Note that Illinois has gone nearly two years without a full-year budget. The proposed package includes an income tax hike, a property tax freeze, more casino gambling, workers’ compensation reform, government consolidation, legislative leader term limits and an appropriation for the current budget year, which would finally put a blueprint in place.

We’ve applauded the effort to break the impasse.

But by protesting the first four bills, Republicans caused the entire package to stumble. Most notably: With the help of several twitchy Democrats, they shot down the only meaningful pension-savings bill to reach the Senate floor in three years. It would have limited the pensionable salaries of teachers, university workers and lawmakers. State workers would be added later, once they settle their contract dispute with Gov. Bruce Rauner. The bill also would have stripped future lawmakers of receiving pensions.

But it failed 18-29 with 10 “present” votes and a couple of members not voting at all. Another day of theater in Springfield. Another day of wimpy votes.

There were a few risk-takers. Sen. Pat McGuire, a Democrat from union-heavy Joliet, voted for compromise. Organized labor, a key constituency in his district, lobbied heavily against the pension bill. But he voted for it anyway. Why?

“We need a budget,” McGuire said. “Union members need it, too.” To almost every question we asked about the bills McGuire answered “We need a budget.”

The way he sees it, the impasse hurts union members and their families, too: Senior citizens who are losing half of their meal deliveries. Disabled children on waiting lists for services. Upheaval for those who rely on home health care as workers leave for better-paying jobs. Rank-and-file taxpayers, including union members, who pay for all the dysfunction via high interest rates on state debt. By some estimates, the state digs itself deeper into debt by $14 million a day.

The reasons to pass a budget, McGuire said, outweigh the reasons to keep objecting to it. Time’s up. So he voted for all four compromise bills.

Not many of his colleagues did, including at least one - Sen. Mike Hastings, D-Tinley Park - who didn’t vote for any of them. A real profile in courage.

Meanwhile, Republicans, pressured by conservative-leaning groups to kill the whole package because they say it doesn’t go far enough, took the safe route. They helped vote the compromise bills down.

So while the 59 senators (and 118 House members) dawdle, companies decide not to further invest in dysfunctional Illinois. Credit agencies further downgrade state government. Residents poke “for sale” signs in their front yards.

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