Doomsday Clock ticks for Illinois

Remember the ominous “Doomsday Clock” with its symbolic “countdown” to a global disaster like nuclear war, and more recently, climate change?

The clock concept dates back to University of Chicago researchers whose work during World War II led to development of the first atomic bomb.

After the war a distinguished group of international scientists continued the risk analysis by calculating looming dangers once a year, and dramatizing their calibration by moving the clock’s ticking minute hand to a pre-determined time uncomfortably close to midnight, or “doomsday,” and all that implies.

The setting varies year-to-year — it’s five to twelve in 2014, which is worrisome, but fortunately, only a metaphor.

So why am I invoking the clock muse? Because it’s also a useful way to consider another potential disaster much closer to home: Government meltdowns at all levels — city, county, suburban, rural and state — over the daunting challenge of funding retiree pensions and medical benefits, and providing basic programs and services, without imposing huge tax increases that drive businesses and individuals out of Illinois, or massive layoffs and draconian spending cuts that hurt people.

I’m not crying “wolf” here, or echoing Chicken Little’s warning about the sky falling.

This scenario is based on real data and knowledgeable assessments, including the following:

  • The new state budget has an actual revenue shortage of about $2 billion.
  • The stack of unpaid bills is down considerably but still nearly $4 billion.
  • The Ill. Supreme Court’s recent declaration that it’s unconstitutional to reduce retiree health benefits may foreshadow a similar fate for the pension reforms Illinois lawmakers approved last year for current and former state workers.

That ruling prompted the fiscal watchdogs at Standard & Poor’s to move the state’s financial outlook into “negative” territory, which portends another credit downgrade.

  • Hundreds of local governments are facing their own pension crises, including the City of Chicago, its public schools, Cook and other counties, and municipalities around the state.
  • The possible relocation of Walgreen and AbbVie headquarters outside Illinois reflects a sour corporate mood — companies sick and tired of our inhospitable business climate and national reputation for waste, fraud, corruption, inefficiency and dysfunction.

Bottom line? More jobs and individuals are going out than coming in, governments continue to rely on borrowing schemes and fiscal gimmicks to pay the bills, and our state lawmakers haven’t developed a comprehensive plan for reversing this dystopian condition.

Has anyone suggested a gathering of top business, civic, political, academic, and community leaders to assess the severity of the crisis, and propose long-term solutions? Not that I’ve heard.

Isn’t it time to put all of the elements of the problem on the table — government obligations, including retiree benefits, union contracts and credit payments; discretionary spending on programs, projects and services; staffing levels; bureaucratic bloat, highlighted by Illinois’ excessive number of governmental entities; and revenue streams, including taxes and fees—and then consider reasonable solutions?

A summit is long overdue.

Clearly, there are no easy answers, and no way to avoid discomfort, but hardship and sacrifice should be shared, and we have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us.

For the record, Illinois is just one of several states teetering precariously on the edge of the fiscal cliff, and Washington D.C. has turned dysfunction into a way of life.

That’s discouraging, but not necessarily fatal, or permanent, and there’s actually a reason for optimism: Our historic ability, as a nation, to confront serious problems and forge solutions.

From slavery to Jim Crow to women’s suffrage to minority and gay rights; from world wars to economic depressions to natural disasters; from sweatshops to workplace reforms to technical, industrial and communications revolutions — we’ve faced obstacles that seemed intractable, and overcome many of them.

But time is short — our local “doomsday clock” is ticking toward midnight — so our “can do” spirit has to start permeating the halls of government from Cary to Chicago to Champaign to Carbondale ASAP.

Our leaders have to lead, because the fate of our state depends on it.

And they have to lead us away from the cliff — not over it.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association.

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