Time to change Illinois Constitution to break Illinois budget deadlock

March 07, 2016
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Let voters enact constitutional change to break Illinois budget deadlock, prevent repeat

GUEST VIEW

As a former Illinois budget director under Gov. Pat Quinn for the four years following the Great Recession, I am disappointed to hear the gridlock in our current governor’s recent talks.

With no plan to restore a balanced budget, unpaid state bills are rising back to peak levels. Meanwhile our new governor refuses to implement either sufficient spending cuts or new revenues.

Gov. Quinn achieved fiscal balance by reducing unpaid bills $876 million in his last full year. Unpaid bills at the end of FY14 were down to $2.404 billion after a recessionary peak of nearly $7 billion. Positive cash flow balances were creating the stable platform necessary to address longer-term priorities.

Now instead, the governor uses the intentional buildup of unpaid bills as a blackmail club for political purposes. Such extortion at public expense should be rejected.

As the unpaid bills mount, we hear some symbolic changes from Gov. Bruce Rauner that fail to add up. Embarrassed by his inability to generate large numbers in spending cuts, the political corners of his office come up with claims that do not meet budgetary scrutiny.

There has been little challenge in the press of his phony claim of $250 million in Medicaid savings. Such a nice-sounding round number is not real budget cutting. Eliminating dormant names on the Medicaid rolls is not a savings when the people deleted from the list had not even shown up recently to claim any medical expenses. That is why their accounts were dormant in the first place.

The reality is Gov. Rauner has failed to make efficiencies or tough cuts. He refused the green light from the courts to close Murray Developmental Center, scheduled to close in early 2015. Successful court battles had resolved all legal challenges, yet he red-lighted this further step toward community-based care. He has failed to reduce the prison population. Instead he asks a commission to plan to do so in 10 years, six long years after the end of his term. He wants to erase the post-Blagojevich procurement reform savings by returning to “quasi pay to play,” which will increase contracting costs by hundreds of millions a year.

Without real cuts and refusing to continue necessary revenues for state services, we are faced with partisan gridlock. The more normal and historic pragmatic approach is to compromise and move forward.

This gridlock is causing short-term and long-term damage to the economy, higher education, infrastructure, private sector vendors and, most importantly, to the people of Illinois. Rauner promised to “shake up Springfield,” but it is clear the only shaking taking place is to the social fabric of our state.

Our 1970 Constitution did not envision such gridlock. Nor did it assume the abusive use of the gubernatorial budgetary vetoes as a blackmail tool to seek other substantive and political change to our economic system.

The General Assembly can fix this by placing constitutional reforms on the ballot in 2016. There is no Governor’s veto of such constitutional proposals. A package of reforms to eliminate gridlock while also letting the voters in the state consider a millionaire’s tax might not make our state’s 13 oligarchs happy, but it would add fiscal balance benefiting millions in our state.

If our state’s political leaders cannot achieve a truce or interim budgetary solution by the end of the normal veto session in November, then voters need to recognize there is a structural and procedural flaw in Illinois government. This flaw could be addressed through a deadlock mechanism in the Illinois Constitution like the one we have now for reapportionment deadlocks.

Bypassing the political advocates who favor gridlock and blackmail, we could once again move our state toward the fiscal stability achieved during the tough budget fights a few years ago. It is time to let the common sense of the voters overrule the political and painful schemes of current Gov. Bruce Rauner.

This article appeared originally in The State Journal-Register. It appears here with permission of the author.

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