By Charlie Leonard, visiting professor, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute
It is common knowledge in the political and public policy communities that Illinois’ budget chasm is deep, wide, and extremely difficult to bridge during a down economy. But it is a structural deficit, meaning that our more-or-less fixed expenses (schools, roads, public safety, debt on bonds, etc.) have been outpacing our revenues (income taxes, corporate taxes, sales taxes, etc.) long before the current economic downturn.
It is not common knowledge in the general public. In a string of polls the Paul Simon Institute has conducted over the last three years, a very stable six in ten respondents believe that there is enough waste and inefficiency in the state government to cover our budgetary shortfalls. It is a ridiculous assertion, of course, since our deficit equals somewhere around 40 percent of all state spending.
As tempting as it is to blame the citizenry for their ignorance—and for returning the same cast of characters to run the show—we should try to forgive this belief for several reasons:
First, it is easy to believe corruption and ineptitude is at the heart of any large problem in Illinois state government, given our long record of corrupt and inept public officials being caught and sent to prison.
Second, politicians know they can run and win on a no-new-taxes, no-cuts-in-services platform. Voters want free candy. Politicians know it isn’t free, but they promise it anyway.
Third, and related, in the minds of most voters, taxes have become completely decoupled from the provision of necessary government services. On a recent CBS Sunday Morning commentary, talking head Ben Stein complained about proposed higher taxes on the rich (like him). “Why should I be punished?” for being successful, he whined.
One answer, of course, is that the rich get better services than the rest of us, in the form of better roads, better schools, more highly paid and equipped police departments. Owners of businesses in this country are provided for free with literate, numerate workers, thanks to tax-supported, mandatory public education. We do not go to the steak house and then complain that we are being “punished” by paying more than the customers of McDonald’s.
In the bigger picture, in survey after survey—including ours—respondents oppose raising taxes, and then oppose cuts in the very services those taxes should pay for. It boggles the mind.
Do roads pave themselves? Does the money for police protection magically appear in little bags with dollar signs on them? Who pays the teachers and the public health workers and the highway patrol and the supervisors of our beautiful parks? Where does the money come from? Bake sales?
It is time for an honest discussion between politicians, people in the policy community, and the voters. Voters want public services, and in our surveys, most say they are satisfied with them. The state is giving us the services we ask for, but its leaders—mostly—have been telling us that we somehow don’t have to pay.
Perhaps after electing a governor who admits we need an income tax increase we can begin having this necessary adult conversation. But don’t hold your breath. It’s a lot easier for the rest of the government to promise free candy.
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