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Madeleine Doubek: No more ducking tough talk on what state should cut

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s plan for shrinking state spending to no more than is generated has been met with howls of alarm from transit agencies, social service providers, mayors and more.

OPINION

It’s never an easy thing to cut spending you’ve grown used to, especially when it could mean a child and her parents might not have access to day care while the adults work to bring home enough to put food on the table. Or when it means a developmentally disabled adult might lose access to training programs to help him find a job. Or when fares for a bus ride to a minimum-wage job might have to go up.

Is it possible there’s something that day care provider could cut? Or that social service agency or the CTA? Maybe. Maybe not. Are all of those functions taxpayers should support? Maybe. Maybe not.

Since Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed slashing spending so that it matches actual annual revenues, it seems all we hear about are the worst-case scenarios that would result as every group in Illinois fights to keep what they’ve been getting. And those worst-case scenarios sound pretty rough. They’ve had an effect on the body politic.

A new poll found 14 percent of registered voters believe Illinois can fix its deficit problem only by raising revenue, likely through taxes. Another 42 percent believe the state can fix its financial crisis just by cutting waste and inefficiencies, according to the new poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. A little more than one third of those polled, 34 percent, believe it will take a combination of cuts and tax increases to solve the problem.

Illinois has been overspending for years. That’s why we have the largest unfunded pension liability and why state officials need to fix a $1.5 billion hole in this year’s budget and figure out a spending plan for the year that starts in July.

We know it will be painful and there might be some negative consequences from some of the cuts. It scares me, for instance, to think about having to cut help for young adults who’ve aged out of the foster system and who never have been dealt a decent hand in their short lives. But these are the conversations that must be had.

Illinois expects to collect $32 billion in tax revenue. Rauner proposes to cut more than $6 billion to deal with the deficit and spend $31.5 billion. It really would be painful if I had to cut my spending by 20 percent, but there was a time once when I had to find a way to cut 10 percent. Staycations happened rather than vacations. There were far fewer dinners out and drinks with friends after work.

I don’t kid myself. I know there are plenty of us in Illinois who cut all that and much more during the Great Recession. They’ve never recovered from it.

But now it’s up to all of us to figure out what we want to afford. What we’re willing to pay for and what we’re not willing to fund. What can we live without?

Where is that discussion these days? I don’t hear many ideas for savings from transit chiefs or day care advocates or mayors. It does sound like hospital executives have some creative ideas to consider. Good. What about everyone else?

Instead, I read more about what cannot possibly be cut. And I read a lot about Rauner pushing right-to-work zones and an end to union fair-share fees and and Attorney General Lisa Madigan telling him he can’t do that. That might be a debate worth hashing out.

Right now, we need to talk about what we can cut and manage. It will be brutal. We’ve got to cut more than $6 billion from what we’re used to spending for the year that starts in three months. We need to get talking. Now.

Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois.