The situation in Springfield looks dire. There’s at least four billion less coming in next year due to the reduction in the income tax that just went into effect, and billions more due to help plug the various pension obligations and debts. So is this the worst it’s ever been?
Not really, says Chicago Tribune Editorial Board member Kristen McQueary. It’s actually just State of Illinois politics.
“Every year, regardless of who’s in the governor’s office, whether it’s a Democrat or Republican, this is crunch time in Springfield. This is the sausage-making part. It’s always chaotic. So it doesn’t surprise me that they’re talking about possibly an overtime session, staying past the May 31 date. They’re trying to cobble together a budget, which would be an improvement over last year, which was to leave on May 31 with a budget that only paid for half of the year.
So what is going on? Roosevelt University professor and City Club Chairman Paul Green, who has covered Springfield since before Jim Thompson, says they’re all in a bit of a jam.
“Right now they’re jabbing each other, poking for holes,” he tells us. “The reality of it is, it is so enormous, there’s no way you could cut your way out of this, there’s no way you could revenue your way out of this. So they’re playing games. Sooner or later, someone’s gonna have to make a decision. I’m just guessing, because you could spend a whole lifetime and never come close to figuring out Madigan’s moves, but neither one wants to go first. So to me it’s a giant game of chicken. Who blinks first? And I think that, unlike last year, there’s no way they can put together a BS budget like they did last year…they may have to blink together.”
But MCQueary, whose ed board can pretty reliably be counted on to be anti-tax, says new taxes are coming. “Financially we’re in a hole,” she explains. “There’s no doubt about that. I think at some point Rauner is going to have to look at maybe expanding the sales tax – that’s something he did not shut the door to as a candidate – and there are lots of fiscal conservatives who think that’s a smart way to raise revenue. But he wants reforms. He wants further worker’s compensation reform. He wants further tort reform. And if the Democrats don’t give him a little of that, then he says he’s just gonna keep them in Springfield beyond May 31.”
Of course, the legislators today are faced with something quite new: the clear mandate from the Illinois Supreme Court that pensions may not be abridged. When that factor is added to the generally miserable fiscal condition, it gets complicated.
“You go back to the great Depression,” Green asserts. “The City was in terrible shape, so was the State. And I think today is equally bad as the great Depression. The big difference today is the P word. Pensions. That was not an issue back then.”
“The thing that bothers me the most,” he continues, “And for the record I have a State pension, is that people who have their pensions now don’t give a damn about the kids and the young people who are going to have nothing left. They’re gonna soak up all that money…the City pensions are gonna be gone. There’ll be nothing there for the people who are working putting the money in. Remember, this is nothing but a ponzi scheme. Young people put money into the pensions so old people can get their pension benefits and then the next generation gets the benefits. Well, they’re gonna spend the money down to zero. Then what do you have? Everybody gets shafted. But as long as there’s a nickel in the till – I want my share, I don’t give an inch. I think it’s absolutely madness.”
So should the unions come to the table and give back some benefits, we ask him?
“If the unions, back in 2000, 2002, were willing to give a little bit on raising retirement age,” McQueary adds, “I argue that the law that the Supreme Court threw out as unconstitutional, the unions got everyone riled up that – we’re taking away your pensions, we’re stealing your pensions – that bill was a minor curbing of the growth of your pension. It still included annual raises. It made you work a little longer, which is logical because people are living longer, it froze some of the COLAs for a couple of years. It was a very reasonable compromise, and still everybody dug in and said no.”
But, we ask, isn’t the root cause of this madness the continual insistence of state and local governments to issue pension “holidays”, the result of which is a long-term, chronic under-funding of the system? Isn’t it true, we ask Mr. Green, that if Illinois had legally and adequately funded their portions of these instruments, that we wouldn’t be having this discussion today?
“It’s irrelevant what happened fifty years ago,” he retorts. “If the captain would have just steered the ship a little differently, we wouldn’t have hit the iceberg. We’ve hit the iceberg. It’s over. So what are we gonna do now and into the future? The reality is there have to be tremendous concessions from everybody. The pensioner. The taxpayers. And let’s not let the taxpayers off the hook. One of the reasons that they delayed, was they didn’t want to put money into pensions instead of into services because in the next primary someone would say – you know what that guy did, those public employees got the money instead of schools.”
So there’s agreement that this will be a lengthy, onerous debate. But Green says he’s pretty sure he can predict how it’ll end.
“I think if this is gonna be settled it’ll be settled in two hours in a closed room. With the players.”
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was a recent City Club speaker. He tended to focus mainly on the Department’s accomplishments, and principally these revolve around reductions in crime. But his numbers are controversial, says McQueary.
“The crime stats issue does make the police department look less credible, and the superintendent,” she explains. “It’s been pretty obvious if you’ve been following the Chicago Magazine articles, (here and here) and even Joe Ferguson, the City’s Inspector General audited some of the crime stats and found that they’re wiggling the numbers.”
But the Superintendent also spoke about the complex social issues that challenge the department. He claimed that he has a renewed commitment to community policing, and to reducing the numbers of young arrestees sitting at Cook County Jail. McQueary thinks it’s laudable effort.
“His office is meeting regularly with States Attorney Anita Alvarez, Toni Preckwinkle’s office, Tim Evans, Sheriff Tom Dart, because it’s not just jail overcrowding, it’s the unjust nature of keeping people behind bars who haven’t even had their day in court. They’re people who’ve been arrested, but their cases haven’t been adjudicated. So I have to say, they all deserve credit for trying to get through that backlog and do a better job of getting people out on electronic monitoring who are non-violent offenders.”
“He’s trying to balance the need to maintain order in this city with problems that the police officers cannot, by themselves, solve,” Green adds. “Police officers, teachers (and) social workers. Those people that are sort of the DMZ between the people doing bad things and the people doing good things. And the police officers aren’t paid enough, aren’t trained enough. They aren’t psychologists and sociologists.”