One hundred fifty winters ago, on the day before he turned 52, Abraham Lincoln departed Springfield to save the union. Now we need to secure the future of his state.
In the domed building just blocks from Lincoln's home, the Democrats who control Illinois government finally confronted the kil-ler deficit they and their Republican colleagues had refused to address responsibly through one budget cycle after another. But the hefty income tax increases whisked through the General Assembly eschewed comprehensive tax reform, aggressive spending reductions, additional revisions in public pensions and appropriate sensitivity for the state's clouded business climate - all vital to achieving long-term fiscal stability, attracting and keeping jobs, serving the truly disadvantaged and helping children in every corner of Illinois realize their full potential.
Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, Senate President John J. Cullerton and their troops deserve credit, amid the criticism and condemnation, for providing additional revenues that inevitably would have contributed to any realistic budgetary rescue. But the mission remains unaccomplished. The increases in personal and corporate income taxes will narrow significantly a deficit that had been expected to reach $15 billion this spring; however, they will not prevent comparable shortfalls in the coming years, according to projections by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and the legislature's own Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
The sobering outlook underscores the urgency of reinventing the way state government spends and raises money. In addition to scrutinizing every demand on taxpayer dollars, we must reform how we gather them. We can and should ease the income tax bite on working Illinoisans by overhauling a tax structure that reflects the Illinois economy of 1969, not 2011.
The state could gain billions in revenue by extending the sales tax to cover services. Does it make sense to tax the purchase of a calculator but not consultations with an accountant? Among states that levy an income tax, Illinois stands alone in excluding re-tirement benefits. Even if it taxed only that income exceeding $50,000 or perhaps $75,000, the state would reap hundreds of mil-lions, eventually billions. Is it fair to ask struggling parents of school-age children to pay 66 percent more in income taxes while we spare their elders - including multi-millionaires?
Our leaders cannot continue to boost taxes on businesses without curtailing their costs. They need to reform worker's compensa-tion and eliminate regulatory rigmarole to remove the frowns of Illinoisans who create jobs and the smirks of governors from Indi-ana, Wisconsin and other states eager to entice them.
Quinn and the Democratic legislative majorities simply cannot rest after their revenue rush. The issues and the stakes are too compelling and immense. They have been understandably reluctant to bring Republicans to the table, given the anti-tax pandering and lack of sincere, constructive engagement among most in the GOP ranks. At the same time, Republicans chafe at what they perceive as the arrogance of the majority. The distrust is destructive. We cannot rebuild our state without a rebirth of bipartisan-ship.
But the challenges, though daunting, pale in comparison to what Lincoln faced as he left his friends Feb. 11, 1861 in Springfield. "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington," the soon-to-be-inaugurated 16th president said in his farewell remarks.
He accomplished his mission. Those we elected in November in the "Land of Lincoln" cannot - dare not - shirk theirs.
MIKE LAWRENCE, who lives in Springfield, is a retired director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is a veteran newspaper professional and columnist who previously served as the State Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises, which owns The Southern Illinoisan, and as the State Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun Times.