Whoever said that politics is about solutions? Politics is about competition and conflict. It’s about grabbing as much power as you can. It has nothing to do with the right, wrong, or any other way. It’s about butting heads and coming out the winner. That’s why Illinois’ state budget crisis is perfect politics. Springfield found a way to turn the budget into an absolutely insoluble problem, a crisis so perfect that all it does is serve the needs of entrenched state politicians.
It also creates a frightening opportunity.
State budget crisis took years to perfect
This is a manufactured crisis, just like the periodic shutdown threats we hear from Washington. A ruined Illinois wasn’t created overnight. It took time and effort. The emergency sirens have been going off for years. The pension crisis is old news. Unpaid bills are how business with the state is done. Lottery problems and credit downgrades shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow at this juncture. The Democratic machine’s mobilization of the people for benefits and programs the state can’t afford is politics as usual. How many of us even pay attention anymore?
This week we are watching the culmination of the perfect politics that ruined Illinois. Pristine deadlock. Nothing moves. The money is gone. Billions in unpaid bills are piled up. Tongues wag. Blame is cast. Political conflict and competition cancel each other out and the people are handed a catastrophe the auteurs of which will walk away scot-free to await reelection when it’s over.
The Illinois Policy Institute reported on the paltry amount of time put into the early rounds of the special session at an absurd cost to taxpayers.1 The point of this showy legislative charade is not to solve a financial crisis many of us suspect is beyond repair. It’s to give the appearance of hard work so each side gets to take credit while blaming the other for refusing to compromise.
Perfect politics isn’t about government
Government is a pretty dry, tasteless affair when it’s done right. There isn’t a lot of fun in it. Some definitions of politics refer to governing, but how much does governing have to do with managing the Illinois budget crisis? Not much.
Perfect politics is a conflict that has no solution and never goes away. In Washington think immigration, health care, and our massive federal debt. Lips flap, tempers flare, and cameras flash. Everyone knows that the best problems keep giving and never go away.
In Illinois we created a problem that can’t be solved, a state budget crisis so overwhelming that the best thing to do is nothing until a solution comes from outside. That’s where Puerto Rico enters the picture and hands Springfield an opportunity.
Puerto Rico blazes the trail: an opportunity for Illinois?
South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford warned about the potential for a Puerto Rican bankruptcy solution to spread:
Second, I don’t think that letting Puerto Rico file bankruptcy sets a good precedent for other states facing similar financial troubles, like Illinois and California. Down the road, these states could ask for similar restructuring from Congress, using Puerto Rico as an
example of why this would be allowed.2
Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, whose state would be at the top of the list if states could go bankrupt, took the opposite stance:
“It’s about time the Governor called on the Financial Control Board to initiate the bankruptcy process under Title III of PROMESA. The ability to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt is really the one provision of PROMESA that had any value.3
Restructure or abdicate? With Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt load and a bankruptcy filing hovering in the background, Democratic voices like Reps. Stephanie Murphy4 and Darren Soto joined in on the push for statehood:
Ultimately, I believe that it is in the best interest of my constituents, our fellow citizens in the territory, and America as a whole, that Congress work to ensure a strong and vibrant Puerto Rico. Congress must resolve Puerto Rico’s political status to unleash its full economic potential and return prosperity to the island.5
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats duke it out in Springfield. What makes for perfect politics? Politicians win. People lose. Politicians get reelected. People pay the price. What could be more perfect than that? How about an unprecedented state bankruptcy filing that dumps Illinois’ troubles on creditors and the nation and creates new opportunities for irresponsible state politicians who rack up unsustainable debt? For now, let’s think about Puerto Rico as a test case. That special session to fix our state budget crisis is still underway …
Update June 28, 2017: how do you define “deal”?
Public worker pensions. Social spending. An income tax hike. We hear that a deal is in the works. Two things about the hyperbole coming from downstate are especially galling. First, we are told that a statewide tax increase is justified because residents pay such low rates compared to the rest of the country. Anyone who lives in Cook County knows that income taxes are only part of how Illinoisans are stripped of their incomes for little or no gain. Remember how little of your fair share you pay while you are drinking your newly overtaxed can of soda over the Fourth of July weekend.
Second and worse, we are going to hear that whatever legislators cook up is necessary for the good of Illinois. Are they issuing themselves badges of courage for making the hard decisions and doing what needs to be done? Lawmakers ruined this state. They’ve been doing it for years. Where is the integrity that underlies their accountability?
Don’t make me laugh.
UPDATE July 2, 2017: shut up, give up, and go home
The deadline passed. No resolution. Instead, we are treated to clips on the news of Springfield lawmakers patting themselves on the back for all their hard work over the weekend. They should be on their knees apologizing to the residents of this state but instead, it’s all about accolades for failing to do what we pay them for.
This is all about working up the courage to pass a tax increase, but here’s another idea: how about an exit fee? Fine Illinoisans who get the hell out of this junk state.
As a side note, the July 4th weekend start for Cook County’s soda tax took a stumble in court just before the money started flowing in. No doubt it will be back, but in the meantime the county will have to scramble for another way to fleece us.
So here’s one more idea: pass an air tax. Measure our lungs and fine us for how much air we use. Face it, that’s about all there is left that isn’t being taxed already.
1. Kohn Eric. “Day 4: Illinois House and Senate Adjourn Special Session After Only 16 Minutes.” Illinois Policy. June 25, 2017. https://www.illinoispolicy.org/day-4-illinois-house-and-senate-adjourn-special-session-after-only-16-minutes/, retrieved June 26, 2017.
2. “Yesterday, the House voted on and passed H.R. 5278, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act by a vote of 297 to 127.” Mark Sanford. June 10, 2016. https://sanford.house.gov/media-center/blog-posts/yesterday-the-house-voted-on-and-passed-hr-5278-the-puerto-rico-oversight, retrieved June 26, 2017.
3. “Gutierrez on Title III Bankruptcy Declaration for Puerto Rico.” Luis Gutierrez. May 3, 2017. https://gutierrez.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/guti-rrez-title-iii-bankruptcy-declaration-puerto-rico, retrieved June 26, 2017.
4. “NEWS: Murphy Expresses Support for Puerto Rican Statehood.” Stephanie Murphy. March 2, 2017. https://stephaniemurphy.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=45, retrieved June 27, 2017.
5. “Congressman Soto’s Statement About Puerto Rico’s Upcoming Plebiscite.” Darren Soto. June 6, 2017. https://soto.house.gov/media/press-releases/congressman-soto-s-statement-about-puerto-rico-s-upcoming-plebiscite, retrieved June 27, 2017.