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Voice of The Southern: Budget crisis only an ugly symptom

Voice of The Southern: Budget crisis only an ugly symptom

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In January 2011, the Illinois General Assembly passed a “temporary” increase in the personal income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent and in the corporate rate from 4.8 percent to 7 percent.

Gov. Pat Quinn -- with help solely from fellow Democrats -- pushed it through post-election and with the help of a legislator or two who’d previously been opposed. Suddenly, votes that had been unavailable were available. And a lame duck legislator or two headed for well-paid state government jobs.

And the vote hadn’t been taken from the tally board before skeptics began to nudge and wink. Given the Legislature's spending record and previous broken promises, did anyone believe “temporary”?

Fast forward to the this spring, and various state agencies under the same governor -- from the people that teach the little ones to those that jail felons -- are again on-script.

The theme: Unless Illinois extends the income-tax increase past its approaching expiration date, the sky will fall and children will suffer. No one will be safe; cats and dogs will roam the streets together. OK, the predictions weren’t that dire, but they were certainly frequent and grave. And perhaps they were even accurate.

But let’s step back and consider why the increase was needed and what it accomplished. Illinois had the nation’s most underfunded state pension debt, and it also was facing short-term debt (overdue bills) approaching $9 billion.

The state passed a pension-repair bill (but it still remains tied up in court), and The Prairie State has significantly reduced its stack of past due bills. Bravo.

But the truth remains we borrowed to pay debt, to make up for spending tomorrow’s funds on yesterday’s expenses. What Illinois did not address was its overall tax-and-spend mentality. And it’s still not addressing that problem.

What the governor and the General Assembly are now doing is the equivalent of saying, “How much do we want to spend?” and then taxing to raise that amount. What they are not doing is saying, “How much money do we have and how much can we afford to spend?”

As any person trying to stay afloat in these tough times knows, the approach is backward, not without pain and cannot last forever. Or as Republican state Rep. Jim Durkin, the House minority leader, put it: “They are doing it backwards, upside down and every other method of misdirection.”

Durkin is right and the entire dilemma raises real questions.

Why did state leaders come at this from only one direction? Why is there any new spending in these proposed budgets? Is the state capable of living within any budget?

Where has been the legislative discussion of ideas such as that of The Civic Federation that the tax be extended for one year then scaled back over the next three years? 

What has the state shown us in prior spending performance? How do we know we won’t be back in this jam in two, four or six years? Why is the May 31 budget deadline so near and so little -- other than a “pass it or else” campaign – been accomplished?

Meanwhile, lawsuits over alleged patronage hiring plague Illinois government, resident satisfaction is sinking like a rock, one Illinois governor is home from his federal prison stint and another remains in the joint. We have, as yet, been unable to get questions on topics including term limits and political mapping reform on the ballot.

Bottom line: The state of Illinois has a problem, and its taxpayers have been passive enablers. If this tax increase slides gently through the General Assembly, understand this truth: We will be changing nothing as long as we continue to return safe-mapped incumbents to Springfield.

Feedback: We want to hear what you have to say. Type your thoughts about our editorials by clicking on the “discussion” tab in the online version of this opinion at www.thesouthern.com/news/opinion/ If you want to see your comments in the newspaper, e-mail them directly to gary.metro@thesouthern.com along with your name, address and telephone number.

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