It’s really not engaging in too much hyperbole to say that Chicago and Illinois face crises similar to Detroit, Puerto Rico and Greece.
We’ve known for several years now that big payments were due the Chicago teachers, police and fire pensions this year, and that Chicago Public School finances were tilting toward insolvency. And yet, school officials are making payments at the last second with money they don’t really have after a dangerous deal to borrow from the teachers’ pension fund fell apart. Now, school officials and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are warning of more mid-year budget cuts to schools and blaming the crisis on Springfield.
We’ve known for many years that Illinois isn’t paying its bills or funding its pensions properly. We’re more than $100 billion behind on paying for pensions — the worst in the nation — and another $5 billion behind on paying for goods and services. And yes, lawmakers did pass one plan to try to fix the pension crisis, but it was found unconstitutional, something just about anyone who was watching the court a year ago saw coming when it issued a ruling saying public worker health care benefits must be covered by taxpayers.
We’ve known since, oh, I don’t know, statehood in 1818 (she wrote facetiously), that there’s often waste in government, especially in a state known for corruption, like Illinois. Perhaps the poster child for that waste was the $50 million spent on the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative that dominated political discussion most of last year.
We’ve known since last November that Democrats no longer control every aspect of state and Chicago government, when Republican Bruce Rauner won the governor’s race by four percentage points while Democrats maintained their super majorities.
And what’s happened since then? Gov. Bruce Rauner called for shared sacrifice, but proposed a budget more than $2 billion out of balance by offering up a pension plan that clearly wasn’t going to work. Emanuel ran scared and won, avoiding talk of financial doomsdays as much as he could. House Speaker Michael Madigan and his fellow Democrats gave Rauner a budget that spends at least $3 billion more than the state will collect from taxpayers this year.
We could have spent the past eight months working to wring every dollar in savings and cuts we could find out of these city and state governments. We finally could have made some real headway toward starting to consolidate the more than 7,000 government units that tax us literally and figuratively. We could have engaged in a constructive and productive discussion about whether we really need a “salmon fund” and nearly 800 other “special funds” containing more than $9 billion. We could have had a full, detailed and long debate about whether and how to update our tax policies. How can we fix school funding? Should we tax services? Which ones and why? Does the income tax rate need to change for people or businesses? How are we going to get a handle on our pension crises and not cut corners on a generation of our children?
Instead, we’ve had speeches about prevailing wage rates and “fair share” dues. We’ve had secret budget working groups. We’ve had property tax relief and workers’ compensation show votes after showboat hearings, and laughable suggestions that deal-making and horse-trading don’t happen under the Capitol dome.
Imagine Chicago and Illinois are like a home ablaze.
Emanuel grabs a hose, but yells that the water never got pumped up from Springfield. Rauner says the firefighters can be volunteer-only. Madigan insists the flames must be snuffed out with blankets of our cash.
Does it end like Detroit? Or Greece? Or just ashes? Ashes.
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