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Springfield Pols Talk “Tough Choices” but Opt for Easy Ones

Ralph Martire 21 December 2007 3 Comments

If Illinois state government had a nickel for every time an elected official claimed he or she was “willing to make the tough choices” needed to move the state forward, it probably wouldn’t be facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit today. Heck, in all likelihood, the state would have a huge surplus. Too frequently, however, this tough rhetoric is not followed up with action—especially when it comes to politically charged issues, like fiscal policy. This is problematic because, while the “tough decision” rhetoric is rarely translated to policy reality, the state’s fiscal mess is all too real.

Which is not to say the General Assembly is void of leadership—far from it. This past year, during the height of political sniping between the two parties, and notably, among the Democrats, a bipartisan group of legislators passed a major bill out of committee—HB750—that would have delivered numerous, long-term, comprehensive and sorely needed reforms in the state. For instance, it would have eliminated Illinois’ massive $40 billion unfunded pension liability, by paying it off in a responsible manner that frontloaded the costs, rather than deferring them to future generations.

The bill also would have reformed tax policy in Illinois to track the modern economy, reduce property tax burden statewide by almost $3 billion, reduce overall business tax burden and thereby stimulate the economy, and shift tax burden from middle and low-income families to more affluent ones—all while keeping Illinois one of the 10 lowest tax burden states in the nation. It even delivered school funding and accountability reforms in a manner that would bring the bottom and middle up, not tear the top down. But while it passed out of committee, the bill never got called for a final vote.

Of course, all the problems the bill would have addressed not only remain extant, but continue to worsen. Since many of these problems ultimately are caused by a lack of revenue, it appears that rather than actually make the “tough” choices needed to get the state’s fiscal house in order—i.e., cut spending on essentials like education or raise revenue in a fair, responsive and sustainable manner to pay for services—some elected officials have decided to pursue a third option, significantly increase legalized gaming in Illinois.

To date, the proposed gambling expansions put on the table are, well, huge. In each proposal, the number of gaming positions in Illinois would more than double from existing levels. Existing levels, by the way, are nothing to sneeze at. Last year, over 16 million people wagered almost $2 billion at Illinois’ nine riverboat casinos. Sure, that generates money for public services, but far less efficiently than taxing. That’s because, according to the American Gaming Association’s statistics, nationally, for every dollar of revenue generated for state and local government, gamblers have to bet just over six dollars. Compare that to a sales or an income tax, which is a dollar for dollar charge a taxpayer pays to support public services.

But rather than level with taxpayers about the responsibility of society to pay for services people both demand and need by raising taxes fairly, transparently and sustainably, too many of Illinois’ elected officials want to dodge that politically difficult discussion altogether. Instead, they hope an expansion of gaming takes the political heat off of them for a while, particularly now, as the state enters an election year. The real kicker of this political dodge, however, is that, despite more than doubling the nearly $2 billion wagered in Illinois annually, none of the gaming proposals to date would solve any of the state’s long-term structural problems.

So, mostly to avoid making “tough”—read “responsible” —choices, Springfield is instead suggesting gaming expansions that will not fund transit, will not address the unfunded pension liability, will not eliminate—or even reduce— the state’s ongoing, structural deficit, will not provide a stable, responsible means of funding education, and certainly will not make the state’s revenue system any fairer. This is not to say Illinois should never consider expanding gaming. If done for the right reasons, like creating economic development in distressed areas or partially funding a capital investment program, gaming, after careful analysis of all the factors, could be part of a broader, thoughtful strategy. It just shouldn’t be used as a crutch in lieu of a strategy.

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Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank. rmartire@ctbaonline

3 Comments »

  • Disgruntled (author) said:

    How about eliminating needless waste? Is austerity a concept alien to Illinois officials and bureaucrats? I finished reading a flyer which informed me that a community college district is sponsoring and subsidizing a week long Kwanzaa Festival. This may be politically correct, but is it essential? This so called holiday was satirized on “Seinfeld” for its dubious history origins, but why waste tax dollars on such a program if the money could be better spent on office supplies, textbooks or toilet paper?

  • Jim Morley (author) said:

    Another clear and cogent analysis by Mr. Martire, of the current status of state government in Illinois. I hope it is printed in the Sun Times and Tribune. Of course it is us (the voters) who have put these hacks in office. As a life long Democrat it is particularly painful. What to do? Is it possible, like the Reps., who pushed for HB750, to organize a bipartisan group of civic leaders from business, churches, non-privates and other community organizations and unions who would be willing to overlook the funding perks they may get from the current system? Without pushing one particular solution or blaming a specific official they could still give some voice and weight in pointing out how poorly Illinois is now doing in ecucation, infrastructure needs and public transportation. And, it is all based on our over reliance and unfair assessment of property taxes. Our lack of effective leadership in state government needs to be shouted from on high to help voters realize the long term problems for our state if these antics continue.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge (author) said:

    As for Kwanzaa, it does have a questionable pedigree. It is wholly invented and does not actually have its origins in Africa. If public schools, park and library districts stopped kowtowing to the politically correct elites, the festival of Kwanzaa would in all likelihood fade, wither and die. Without government subsidies (i.e. misspent tax dollars), there would be virtually no observances of this festival. Where is the ACLU on this subject? Nowhere to be found, of course, because Kwanzaa is promoted by black nationalists and separatists. If the school districts were spending this money to celebrate Christmas, the ACLU would be seeking an immediate injunction with an atheist as the lead plaintiff. Bah, humbug!

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