Opinion | News-Gazette: What’s state of this state?
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Opinion | News-Gazette: What’s state of this state?

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This editorial appeared in the Feb. 2, 2020, edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette:

When Gov. J.B. Pritzker appeared Wednesday before the Illinois General Assembly, he presented the usual political folderol — one round of self-congratulations after another.

But forget about that. Self-promotion is part of the political theatrics that go with ceremonial occasions like that.

Far more important were some substantive legislative recommendations that the governor made.

He came down hard on the side of fixing this state’s relentlessly corrupt political culture with a proposal that will make powerful elected officials shudder.

He suggested that it’s finally time to move on reducing the number of taxing districts in this state, and doing so in a way that will ease too-high property taxes.

He called for the end of hiring public employees based on their political connections, not the skills they bring to the workplace.

The timing of Pritzker’s address could hardly have been worse. The state is in the midst of one of its intermittent political corruption scandals, and from all appearances, this one is going to be big.

Indeed, the day before Pritzker’s speech, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, pleaded guilty to bribery and tax-evasion charges and announced that he’ll be cooperating with federal investigators following multiple trails of misconduct.

It’s a virtual certainty that some members of Pritzker’s legislative audience will come under severe scrutiny.

In that context and with public confidence in the integrity of the elected elite flagging, what better time to adopt rules that lay the groundwork to clean up Illinois’ rancid politics?

“We must root out the purveyors of greed and corruption — in both parties — whose presence infects the bloodstream of government,” he said. “It’s no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion or bribery persist. Protecting that culture or tolerating it is no longer acceptable.”

Among needed changes, he suggested that “it’s time to end the practice of legislators serving as paid lobbyists ... to end the for-profit influence peddling among all elected officials at every level of government in Illinois.”

He said “elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to retire and immediately start lobbying their former colleagues. It’s wrong, and it’s got to stop.”

Pritzker hit the nail directly on the head, but it’s going to be a tough sell.

Legislators count on being able to lobby, whether they are in office or not. The governor wants to hit them in their most vulnerable spot — their wallets.

Another tough sell will be his proposal to reduce the cost of government at local levels by cutting it down to a proper size and, in doing so, reduce property taxes.

“... it’s time to put the best ideas to work from both sides of the aisle. Local governments continue to max out their levies even when they don’t need to,” he said. “There are perverse incentives in state law that encourage that. We can change the law to support local governments and lower property taxes. And with nearly 7,000 units of government in Illinois, it’s time to empower local taxpayers to consolidate or eliminate them.”

Local officials won’t like that, and they’ll let their representatives in the Legislature know it. The question members of the House and Senate will have to ask themselves is to whom they owe greater loyalty — the taxpayers or their political friends and supporters who hold the affected offices?

With a compliant Democratic super-majority in both houses of the Legislature, Pritzker remains in a strong position to pass much or all of his agenda into law.

That’s why super-minority Republicans will remain, for the most part, mere observers of whatever transpires.

Some members of the GOP can, however, be expected to point out problems as Pritzker’s various costly social programs come under review, the chief one being that Illinois is deeply under financial water. Pritzker, however, made it clear that any such claims will fall on deaf ears.

He characterized those sounding a financial alarm as “carnival barkers, the doomsayers, the paid professional critics.” A better description would have been financial realists.

That’s why Pritzker’s speech was, ultimately, disappointing. No state facing the kind of financial challenges Illinois does can be as healthy as he suggested it is.

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