Carol Marin: Two smart guys mix a good financial martini
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Ralph Martire and Laurence Msall are like oil and water.
And yet, mix these two smart guys together — shaken, not stirred — and you have a cocktail that lawmakers in Springfield need to start sipping.
Msall is the head of the Civic Federation, a bipartisan fiscal watchdog organization funded in large part by business.
Martire is the head of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal watchdog group funded in large part by labor.
Their organizations are committed to saving the state and city from financial ruin. But lawmakers in Springfield have lacked the political will to pay attention to either of them, consumed far more by their pressing need to get re-elected.
But now the Illinois Supreme Court has mixed its own powerful cocktail for the General Assembly — a goblet of hemlock — to knock down lawmakers’ fantasy that they can reform pensions by violating the state constitution and, with it, workers’ retirement rights.
So, back to Martire and Msall.
Each man has voiced thoughtful, potential solutions to Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation fiscal crisis. Though the remedies are painful, they are doable.
They include: One, broaden the sales tax base to include consumer services such as haircuts, health clubs, etc: Two, restore some, not all, of the income tax increase that expired in January; Three, tax retirement income over $50,000 a year on a sliding scale; and Four, amortize our pension debt to level, annual payments but with safeguards to assure the payments cannot be deferred or delayed as lawmakers have seen fit to do in the past.
Yes, restructuring that immense debt will cost more, but spreading it out — and having the revenue to pay for it — just might make an unmanageable crisis today manageable in the future.
Though Martire is more apt to talk about structural deficits and Msall more likely to focus on curbing spending and the size of government, they are both numbers guys at heart, not partisans.
And they share interesting backgrounds.
Msall, a Catholic child of Chicago’s Southside, is one of eight siblings. His parents were the first generation to go to college. They became schoolteachers, though his dad worked other jobs to put food on the table.
“We weren’t poor but we were broke a lot of the time. There was a difference in the quality of our dinners at the beginning of the month than in the last,” he said.
Martire, 55, also Catholic, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Connecticut with three sisters. “My dad never made more than ten grand a year,” he said. Yet, his mother took in six foster kids who were siblings, “so they wouldn’t be broken up by the state,” he said.
The concept of sacrifice is not an abstraction for these two number-crunchers. Nor is fiscal sanity.
It’s time for lawmakers to abandon the eye candy of casinos and the imaginary benefits of 401(k) plans. It’s time for them to pay serious attention to what Martire and Msall are saying. Even, on those occasions, when they disagree with each other.