Like many in Illinois with a job and money to lose, I am waiting for the hammer to fall. The state Senate’s failing “grand bargain” is a bad omen for those of us who have lived here a long time and know what it portends. Sooner or later a tax increase is coming. It will likely be a big one. Even if some version of the grand bargain that isn’t passes, it won’t be the budget fix we need. Illinois politicians will sock us with higher taxes for an uncertain payoff. Before we know it we’ll be doing this dance all over again because the new scheme didn’t fill the hole.
Illinois politicians do well no matter what
Politicians’ fears for their jobs should help protect us. On some primitive level they understand that when they screw up we have the power to deny them their lucrative government gigs. In Springfield this doesn’t work anymore. State government went belly up long ago and even with a Republican at the helm doesn’t show signs of coming back to life.
At least we can count on Illinois politicians doing well. They will get their paychecks and perks and be just fine no matter what happens to their state. They can have it any way they want because they call the shots.
There is something else we can count on. In Chicago the poor legislators use when they need poster children for spending on schools or jobs or community services are still dying.
Pensions first, Illinois murder capital second
We can’t separate Illinois’ budget crisis from demands for more money for the state’s murder capital (Chicago hasn’t earned the national title yet, but there is time).
The tune is familiar. City schools are cheated out of their fair share of funding. Chicago needs money for jobs for kids so they don’t spend their time killing each other. We need more money to serve poor neighborhoods that don’t have enough. There is little self-reflection from lawmakers who over the years have lavished top salaries, benefits, and perks on themselves and from time to time engage in a little corruption while bemoaning the lack of revenue for schools and public services.
That’s how Democratic Party politics works. The poor, the disadvantaged, the elderly, and working families matter when they need to. Now Chicago is threatening to cut the school year short because it’s low on cash. Teacher pensions are secure. Education for poor kids is not. When it comes between unions and the poor, who do you think is going to win?
There are very few Illinois politicians who want to talk about how they are enriched by public money while Chicago’s poor attend subpar schools and attack each other. Their spending demands rely on the unfortunate and destitute, but they aren’t the ones the billions that are ruining our state will go to if we raise some extra revenue. These people get the leftovers. They are the excuse, not the reason for legislators to entrench themselves in lieu of the term limits we will never see.
Springfield lawmakers are very expensive
An enlightening Illinois Policy Institute article details how much the care and feeding of Illinois lawmakers costs. You would be hard-pressed to find a state that pays its legislators more than Illinois. In fact, we win the prize for fifth highest-paying state in the nation before we even get to the monetary perks1 that go with the job.
The Institute suggested that politicians give up their big money retirements in exchange for the 401(k) plans most taxpayers rely on.2 Of course, that would require a larger personal investment for a more uncertain return. When it comes to their own lives, the absence of term limits and refusal to pass real pension reform or even significantly increase worker contributions speaks volumes about what Illinois politicians really want from the state: job security. Even if we stripped every lawmaker of their pension, we still wouldn’t see significant reform because of the consequences of angering public employee unions.
Not having a budget can be a good thing for lawmakers. It means they don’t have to commit. We already know who they are most concerned about helping. It’s not those living in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods or the children making national headlines after they are shot dead.
There are at least a few things we can count on. Illinois will not have a fair, responsible budget anytime soon. The pension mess will get worse. Lawmakers will do well because the laws they either pass or refuse to pass take care of them. Chicago’s poor? Their schools will get worse. They will keep dying.