Election Remains Big Obstacle to Budget Fix | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Election Remains Big Obstacle to Budget Fix

By all accounts, the state of Illinois' money situation is a mess. Bills keep backing up, a problem exacerbated by tax revenues that keep falling short. It's the underlying issue that affects all other issues in the 2010 campaign for Illinois governor. But election season itself may be the biggest obstacle to solving the problem. 

Following the arrest last year of then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, it was just assumed that political corruption would be the main issue in the 2010 election. And it may turn out that way, but for now the state's dire money situation is driving the debate.

QUINN COMMERCIAL: Pat Quinn's plan would have cut taxes for families making 60,000 or less.

Governor Pat Quinn has been battling one of his Democratic opponents in TV ad after TV ad, not about whether to increase taxes, but about whose tax increase would most benefit the middle class.

HYNES COMMERCIAL: Dan Hynes has a better plan. He'll cut waste line-by-line and only raise income income taxes on people making more than $200,000.

The Republican candidates for governor are also trying out attack lines on the issue, claiming Democratic, one-party rule has led the state to the brink of bankruptcy.

This focus on the budget for the February primaries comes despite continued delay in actual action to fix it. This summer, after Quinn signed Illinois' 2010 budget - a mishmash of borrowing, payment delays and cuts - he insisted he wasn't finished seeking an income tax hike.

QUINN: We will go to the General Assembly in October and say, 'Listen, we made all the cuts you talked about...'

But as the weeks went on, Quinn dismissed an October solution as a political impossibility, and pushed the deadline back even farther, past the February primaries.

QUINN: I look forward to working with the legislature on getting a balanced budget, and we will get that done in this fiscal year.

MSALL: The problems facing the state of Illinois do not get easier to solve over time.

Lawrence Msall heads the budget watchdog group The Civic Federation. He says that delay will only make things worse.

MSALL: We are missing opportunities when we pass a budget that's not tied to the available revenue. The cuts have to be that much deeper. The tax increases will have to be that much larger, because of Illinois' failure to deal with the financial problems.

Partly because of the recession, there's just not enough tax money coming in to cover Illinois' expenses, so the state borrows. But even that's not enough. Illinois' current backlog of unpaid bills exceeds $4-billion. That's the state saying to companies and non-profits, 'Thanks for fronting the expense to do the job we hired you to do. We'll pay you when we pay you.'
MSALL: We're hearing stories about many vendors to the state of Illinois [who] are saying they can no longer continue to accept the state of Illinois as a customer. We've seen in the human services area, the social service network is very much strained and frayed as a result of underpayment and lack of payment from the state of Illinois.

A recent study from the Pew Center on the States found Illinois' budget deficit to be the second steepest in the country, behind only California. The report calls the money lllinois owes its pension funds a "significant and continuing problem," and warns that the state's budget situation "has gone from shaky to unsustainable."

Donne Trotter is a state senator from Chicago who often speaks on behalf of Senate Democrats on budget issues. Trotter says it's not fair to pin the blame just on Quinn for delayed action on the budget.

TROTTER: There are many individuals in the General Assembly, specifically in the House because they're all up for re-election, who are not amenable to voting for a tax increase before the primary election.
HUDZIK: It's the biggest issue in the primary, but the primary is stopping the state from addressing the biggest issue?
TROTTER: And that's the irony of it, and that's unfortunate. We are sent down to Springfield to take some hard votes on some real tough issues, and to back out of it, saying, 'I'm waiting to see if I can keep my job for another two or four years,' I think is doing a disjustice to those individuals who put us in office in the first place.

Trotter hasn't officially endorsed a candidate for governor, but says he's leaning toward supporting Quinn. At this point, given all that's happened in Illinois politics recently, Trotter says the state needs stability in something.

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