By David Yepsen, director, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan deserves credit for offering a little candor when it comes to the state budget mess in Illinois. He sounded Churchillian when he warned his colleagues recently that they “can’t kick the can down the road any further” on issues like unemployment benefits, health care for retired state workers and pensions.
“We’re all familiar with the inadequate funding of the state pension systems, he said. “Again, tough decision making, telling people you’re not going to get everything you thought you were going to get, telling people you may have to pay in more. Not easy stuff. So we better get ready for it.”
Madigan even suggested current workers may have to pay more and that their benefits could be reduced.
“You’ve already changed it going forward” for new state workers. “But now we are working on bills that would change it midstream. A state worker would be told, “All right, you have a state benefit package up to today. Starting tomorrow, it’s going to be a different deal.”
That brought a strong objection from public employee unions and from some lawmakers who said pensions are an unbreakable contract and the state constitution protects them from changes in midstream.
That may be, but Madigan deserves credit for offering his colleagues and the people of Illinois some straight talk about the depth of the financial problems ahead. Some folks think just because lawmakers raised taxes that it’s time to spend again and that’s not true.
A lot of additional cutting and tax increasing is ahead. For one thing, Illinois still owes over $8 billion in unpaid bills to people and groups who’ve provided services to the state but who’ve not been paid. The state is a deadbeat. But by consolidating loans, administration experts believe the state could reduce total interest and penalties by paying its bill on time. Consolidation might also provide a bump to the economy by injecting some needed cash into it.
It’s only common sense but enough lawmakers want to see cuts in future spending before they’ll agree to this idea and have stalled the idea.
Lawmakers also have to decide on making changes to a workers compensation system many feel costs taxpayers too much. Then there are issues like raising the cigarette tax, expanding the list of things subject to the sales tax, taxing pension income and expanding gambling – all to raise revenue to close the state’s budget deficit. And, they have to decide how they’ll make the state’s contribution to pension systems to put them back on a sound footing. As he said: “tough stuff.”
Yes, you can blame Mike Madigan for part of the state’s budget problems. After all, he was speaker when those bad budgets were passed. But you have to give him credit now for at least saying it’s time now for a different course – and a little backbone – from his colleagues. And, you have to admire his courage for standing up to some of the very groups that have supported Democratic legislative candidates in the past.
Democrats generally don’t run for office to make budget cuts and raise taxes. They run for office because they believe an activist government is needed to solve problems. But for now, they not going to get to do much of that. Instead, they’ve been dealt a bad hand. They’ve been put in charge at a time when Illinois faces the biggest budget crises its history. You don’t have to agree with what Madigan wants to do to say it’s refreshing to see an influential leader like him stand up and say it’s time for some hard choices.
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