Illinois needs a vision, not just a budget

Illinois needs a vision, not just a budget

The Illinois Senate budget proposal merely puts off the state’s day of reckoning through more of the same: tax hikes, borrowing and spending, without the necessary reforms to put the state on a path to fiscal and economic health.

Illinois’ political class is fatigued by the state’s ongoing budget gridlock. From civic groups to the press to politicians, the majority has been reduced to demanding any sort of deal to end the stalemate.

“Any budget,” “Something,” “Just anything,” they’ve pleaded. “Say Uncle,” urges the Chicago Sun-Times.

But Illinois and its people can’t withstand just any budget. The state’s past is littered with failed budgets – Republican and Democratic – that have put Illinois on the brink of financial collapse. Three decades of misplaced priorities, and not the current impasse, is why Illinois is at the top of the nation’s fiscal and economic “worst” lists – including a record number of people fleeing the state.

Instead of just any budget, Illinois needs a vision. And the state’s budget should reflect that vision.

That vision should be of a state Illinoisans can be proud of once again. One that remakes Illinois into the beacon of opportunity it once was. A vision in which Illinois successfully competes with the rest of the nation for talent, jobs, investment and ideas – and not through tax breaks. Where Illinoisans can find a future in their home state, rather than having to look outside its borders. Most importantly, that vision should prioritize people – especially the most vulnerable – over politics and the political class.

That vision won’t be fulfilled through “just any” budget. It certainly won’t be fulfilled through the one being debated in the Illinois Senate.

The Senate plan does the same thing Illinois politicians have done for decades: It increases the burden on Illinoisans while doing nothing to fix the underlying causes of Illinois’ crises. This kind of plan ensures the state will be faced with budget gridlock again soon.

The Senate plan hikes income taxes on struggling Illinoisans and small businesses by more than 30 percent – or more than $5 billion a year. It imposes a new $560 million tax on sugary drinks, which will disproportionately hurt the poor. The deal ignores the fact that Illinoisans are already leaving in droves. Billions in additional taxes will only accelerate that out-migration and weaken the state’s tax base.

The deal also resorts to more borrowing. It puts an additional $7 billion burden on taxpayers’ children and grandchildren, ignoring the $130 billion in pension debt and the $56 billion in unfunded state health care obligations Illinoisans are already on the hook for.

Taxpayers would also be forced to bail out Chicago Public Schools again without obtaining any reforms from the district. And the plan authorizes the creation of an additional six casinos – yet another way to drain taxpayer wallets.

And yet, despite all the extra taxpayer dollars lawmakers are demanding, the deal does little to nothing to fix the crises that politicians themselves created: the worst pension crisis in the nation, the nation’s highest property tax burdens, a regulatory environment hostile to business, out-of-control government bureaucracies, and a university system that prices out lower-income students from an education.

The Senate deal isn’t visionary. It’s just a “compromise” deal that delays the state’s day of reckoning.

These individual flaws aren’t the worst part of the Senate budget proposal, however. It’s more insidious than that. Because filling Springfield’s coffers with billions in fresh cash would kill any incentive lawmakers have to tackle Illinois’ real problems, allowing the state’s structural cracks to worsen while politicians spend more and more.

Illinoisans already saw that happen during the 2011-2014 temporary income tax hike. The state had budgets during those four years, but virtually everything – from pensions to the economy to funding for social services – got worse. That’s because state lawmakers used the infusion of nearly $32 billion in new taxes to grow the budget rather than enact significant reforms and pay down Illinois’ crippling debt.

The reality is Illinois is experiencing one of the worst fiscal and economic crises in the nation. It needs the nation’s boldest reforms if it wants to create a new vision for the state and a better future for all Illinoisans.

If the General Assembly really wanted to tackle the state’s problems, it wouldn’t resort to hike taxes. Instead, it would pass the structural spending reforms – from 401(k)-style retirement plans, to comprehensive property tax reform, to a revamped workers’ compensation system and changes to collective bargaining and Medicaid – that would reprioritize how the state spends taxpayer dollars.

Illinois’ civic leaders, politicians and the press must stop demanding just “any” deal. Illinois is in a self-inflicted downward spiral.

Illinois’ problem isn’t that it doesn’t have a budget – it’s that lawmakers have prioritized politics over people.

If real reforms aren’t enacted, Illinoisans will continue to protect themselves and their futures in the only way they can – by leaving.

And that’s not a good deal for the Illinoisans who remain.

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