Editorial: Land of Budget Make-Believe

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

If state budget deliberations in Springfield were any indication, Illinois is no longer the Land of Lincoln but the Land of Make-Believe.

How else to explain a $59 billion budget that spends 8.2 percent, or $2.1 billion, more than the year before, that adds 1,120 people to the state's payroll, that finds more than $2 billion for pensions, that gives a record increase to schools - nearly $600 million more - and all without a tax increase, though some $125 million in business tax breaks would come to an end. How did legislators work this magic without any additional, significant, halfway reliable revenue streams?

Why, they just raised their estimate of the state's natural revenue growth, that's how. In other words, they plucked a number out of a hat.

Why not just fabricate another several billion, provide universal health care and purchase the Chicago Cubs, too?

It is impossible to believe that this budget is anywhere near balanced, not that legislators let that stop them from going on a so-called “member initiatives” splurge that would permit them to unilaterally spread cash around their districts. State representatives reportedly will get $650,000 apiece of play money, state senators $1.3 million.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich disparaged the document at the State Fair on Friday, describing it as “all about pork, politics and false promises.” For once, he may not be too far off the mark.

The Legislature managed to go on this spending spree even without addressing the governor's pet health care initiative - Illinois Covered - and a capital public works program. One can only imagine - or shudder at - the depths of red the state might plumb for those.

This seems far from over, for those kidding themselves into believing the longest overtime session in Illinois history - now more than 70 days - was coming to an immediate close. Though the House shipped the $59 billion budget to the governor Friday, Blagojevich consistently has said this package is unacceptable, while suggesting there's no such thing as a deadline in the Land of Make-Believe. Indeed, the governor urged lawmakers to hang around Springfield this weekend to instead ponder another one-month temporary spending measure - a suggestion House Speaker Mike Madigan brushed off like a piece of lint.

Meanwhile, the governor and the comptroller have been sniping at each other over whether the latter can legally pay the state's bills without an official budget appropriation. The largest state employees' union, AFSCME, went to court to keep its 40,000 members' paychecks coming, with a deal reached Friday that will get them through August. Schools awaiting state aid payments and Medicaid vendors remain out of luck.

Meanwhile, some legislators have broached the subject of initiating impeachment or recall proceedings against the governor, who shrugs and says he'd welcome it. The only sure losers are taxpayers, as the cost of this record overtime session - which had most pols sitting around doing nothing - has likely surpassed $800,000, though no one seems to have a handle on that, either.

If the Illinois Legislature's disapproval rating isn't higher than that of the U.S. Congress - about 70 percent when Americans are in a good mood - then it ought to be. “There is a true lack of trust in this whole process. I've never seen anything like it,” said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson. Actually, there's a lack of trust in the state's leadership, and we've never seen anything like it.

At this late date, both chambers needed to deliver a more austere, realistic spending plan to the governor's desk. Instead he got this, which he can sign, veto all or parts of, or ponder for 60 days while Illinois melts down and the rest of the nation giggles at the folly. If these votes hold, the Legislature has a veto-proof majority.

And its members should have to answer this question: All this time, and this untethered balloon of a budget was the best they could do? Lord have mercy on the citizens of the Land of Make-Believe, because his is about the only place they're likely to get it.

Peoria Journal Star