Opinion: Museum faces shutdown in budget battle

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Paleontologist Jeffrey Saunders, curator of geology at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, in 2005 with a replicated skeleton of the American mastodon (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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SPRINGFIELD – At the supper table the other night, my 9-year-old daughter, Grace, gave me a sad look and said, “Why are they closing the museum?”

She and her two sisters love to visit the Illinois State Museum in Springfield and look at the collections of butterflies, reptiles and the other flora and fauna of the Prairie State.

It’s a fun, free free thing to do during their summer break.

But the museum will close July 1 unless a state budget deal is reached before then.

I’m not holding my breath.

OPINION

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My best guess is Illinois is in for a long, hard slog with Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative Democrats at loggerheads.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton want to raise taxes.

Gov. Rauner says he won’t support a tax hike until Illinois adopts fundamental political and economic reforms. And legislative Democrats are finding Rauner’s “tough medicine” hard to swallow.

Some of the reforms Rauner has called for include:

  • Changing worker’s compensation rules to reduce the cost for employers to provide the mandatory coverage for employees.
  • Place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would eliminate political gerrymandering.
  • Allow voters to vote on another constitutional amendment that would create term limits for state lawmakers.
  • Freezing property taxes statewide and only allowing increases if approved by voters.

Not surprisingly, these ideas are about as popular as tooth decay among the majority Democrats in both chambers.

When Rauner entered office six months ago, he took the helm of a state with a moribund economy, the most debt and the worst credit rating in the nation. His contention is that it doesn’t make any sense to throw more money at the problems until the state adopts changes the way it operates.

But Cullerton said last week, “Workers’ comp is not an economic development tool.”

Huh?

I routinely talk to employers and it’s rare indeed for one not to say the state doesn’t have a major workers comp problem. All of our neighboring states are much less costly for employers.

In fact, just last week, I was chatting with an Illinois newspaper publisher who has his printing operation in Missouri.

Why?

Worker’s comp costs for printers in the Show Me State are $3 per $100 of salary. In Illinois, that number is $13 per $100, he said.

Manufacturers in the Chicago area are migrating to Indiana and Wisconsin from the Land of Lincoln, and they’re citing worker’s compensation as a major factor.

But labor unions and trial lawyers like the system just the way it is, and legislative Democrats are reticent to cross these major campaign contributors.

And high property taxes are not only driving businesses but also ordinary residents from the Prairie State.

When it comes to the constitutional amendments, Madigan and Cullerton view them as a threat to their power.

Legislative districts are drawn to protect incumbents; in most legislative districts voters have little to no choice on the ballot. Instead of voters choosing their legislators, lawmakers are choosing their voters.

And Madigan, who has been in the Legislature since 1971, for some reason doesn’t like term limits.

So that leaves us in quite a spot.

Neither Madigan, Cullerton or Rauner appear ready to budge. And they have passed budgets that are $3 billion to $4 billion out whack.

Cuts appear inevitable. So far, Rauner has unveiled more than $800 million in temporary cuts that will begin if a budget deal isn’t reached by July 1. One of the casualties would be the Illinois State Museum.

My daughters will miss visiting the facility. But it will be one of a multitude sacrifices Illinoisans will face this summer.

Lets just hope the sacrifices lead to a stronger, healthier state.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network.

Twitter: @scottreeder

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