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Illinois' biggest problem? A reality gap

We’ve got way too many gaps in Illinois. We’ve got a state budget gap. And then we’ve got a public finance literacy gap. And both are exacerbated by a huge credibility gap.

1. The state budget gap. Democratic majorities in the House and Senate sent Gov. Pat Quinn a unbalanced $35.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. But without a tax increase, the state is projected to have at least $1.8 billion less to spend next year.

2. The public finance literacy gap. All of us citizens and taxpayers have trouble wrapping our brains around those big numbers that begin with B. Billions are just so hard to fathom. And so far, we just don’t seem to care. A Reboot Illinois automated poll conducted by We Ask America last week illustrates the finance literacy gap. More than 65 percent of those polled want the income tax rate to drop, as scheduled, from the 5 percent rate to 3.75 percent (which will add to the budget gap, of course). Even nearly 50 percent of those who call themselves Democrats want the rate to drop. And more than 55 percent of Chicagoans polled want it to drop. That’s some pretty strong support for no tax increase and it explains why majority Democrats were loathe to pass one before they face voters in November.

The solution to the budget gap that less tax revenue creates? Nearly 55 percent of those polled want spending cut. Well sure, but what to cut? Here is where we have a seemingly intractable problem. It’s incredibly difficult to find places with big enough amounts of money to cut in the state budget. There isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room, really. Those polled picked public pensions as the place to cut more often than not (36 percent). Nearly a quarter of every dollar of state revenue now goes to pensions, but changes to pensions already are tied up in a colossal court battle. Few people want to cut spending on schools or public safety or aid to the poor or elderly. That doesn’t leave a whole lot left.

3. And that brings us to the huge credibility gap. I’d say it’s a safe bet that most of us hear and see reports of waste, fraud and spending abuse so often that we believe to our core that cutting out the state waste alone will be more than enough billions to solve the problem. Heck, there was just that report of the former head of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, George Reid, getting $32,000 to go away after he misused a state car, right? You’ve heard of that even bigger misuse of our money, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, right? The $55 million anti-violence initiative Auditor General Bill Holland discovered was pretty much money tossed to the wind?

Well, let’s stop and consider one more equation a co-worker calculated a while back. The state began June with an overdue bill backlog of $5 billion. And the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative spent $55 million. It would take more than 93 Neighborhood Recovery Initiatives to equal the amount of money we now need to pay off the state’s overdue bills.

The state’s political leaders for decades — decades — have driven up our debts, borrowed more, spent more, skipped payments and they’re at it again. Sooner or later, we Illinoisans will have to pay. Bankruptcy is not a legal state option. We have too many gaps. And we need to start closing them.

Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois.