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Opinion: How to get Illinois a real budget

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

For months, people across Illinois have asked themselves what it would take to end state government’s long budget standoff. Now we know.

Springfield finally acted not out of concern for the poor or for a public education system in turmoil. Disruptions to the state’s normal commerce and damage to its fiscal reputation didn’t force a deal, nor did Illinois’ growing status as inspiration for TV comedians and their polar opposites, newspaper editorialists.

OPINION

All that was needed to get Illinois a partial budget was political calculus. Gov. Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly started with the approaching November election, factored in the risk from schools not opening on time and from construction crews sitting out a season while highway projects stood idle, and they concluded it was time to do their jobs.

For Rauner, it was a retreat that underscored the stunning lack of achievement during his first two years. He had to set aside the union-bashing and wage-cutting measures he demanded as a price for doing anything toward a budget. It’s possible that after the election, he’ll go back to his hostage-taking ways, whether the victims are seniors needing home care, college students relying on financial aid, or state contractors who just want to be paid.

Depending on who holds what cards after the election, we could lapse back into dysfunction. But each side will need to show the voters something, and Rauner himself has voiced confidence a “grand bargain” will come.

Here are suggestions for that conversation:

Graduated income tax — Yes, the captive right wing will scream, but 33 states have graduated income taxes, levying higher rates on those with higher incomes, and the practice is so institutionalized at the federal level that even Republicans don’t raise a peep. Rauner would be open to it, too, although he doesn’t emphasize it. It’s fair, not radical.

Government streamlining — In Cook County, voters in November are set to decide whether to combine the clerk and recorder of deeds offices. How about those superfluous townships or those districts with one school? We know Rauner likes streamlining, and legislation will be needed to enact some consolidation.

Pensions — At $110 billion and counting, the pension liability seems insurmountable, but with the well-off paying more in income tax, the state could live up to its obligations while using other techniques to close the gap. State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) has suggested ways at roadbackillinois.com, including buyouts for state workers and limited borrowing. He’s a mathematician, so we should probably listen.

There’s room on more fronts for Democrats and Republicans to work together, however gingerly. A far-reaching change in the school formula passed the Senate and got no further, but lawmakers took a half step, parceling out $250 million to help schools according to their low-income population.

If we’re thinking big, how about changing how our political maps are drawn, something that’s been part of any good-government platform for years? Illinois could be a real groundbreaker. A proposed November referendum from the Independent Maps movement deserves voter support if it gets the green light from the Illinois Supreme Court.

Also, let’s take up the topic that has elicited Rauner’s most thoughtful comments as a candidate and an officeholder: reducing the prison population, plus other reforms in sentencing. This is a large cost for the state. So push toward a solution that serves justice and thrift.

The last idea: Let’s tone down the us-vs.- them part of our politics. In Illinois debates, Chicago often is set against the rest of the state. The Land of Lincoln is the place to summon our better angels.

David Roeder is a Research Fellow at Innovation Illinois, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to progressive public policies that advance equitable economic growth. He was a longtime business writer and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and served in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

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