Legislators Getting the Message

Doug Whitley, Illinois Chamber of Commerce

At a time when political gridlock in Washington is generating nothing but frustration, Illinois Democrats are showing signs of turning the situation around in our state. It is as if the state is slowly awakening from a decade-long nightmare of corruption, profligate spending and a devil-may-care attitude about our economic decline, job losses and miserable track record for managing government finances—not to mention a tarnished reputation.

In the three years since Governor Quinn inherited his office, there have been signs that the state’s political leadership—the most prominent of which are Democrats—are beginning to accept responsibility for getting us out of the ditch and on the road to recovery.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle led the way by championing the rollback of the county’s ill-conceived sales tax increase, streamlining government services and demanding operational efficiencies.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has quickly assumed a similar approach by undertaking the elimination of the city’s head tax, employing management reviews and challenging public employee unions to become problem solvers rather than obstructionists.

Local government leaders have adopted balanced budgets, cut spending by millions and reduced their number of employees. They have been far more aggressive and successful at addressing the problems confronting their domains than have state budget makers, who continue to deny how bad their situation really is.

The people of Illinois are well aware that their state has been adrift. They are desperate for leadership and actions from the Statehouse that will address the fundamental problems that are necessary to improve conditions. And its leaders have begun to systematically attack these problems.

The list of legislative accomplishments is impressive: it provided a $31 billion capital bill to fund infrastructure and transportation projects; revised the pension benefit structure for new employees; introduced cost containment for Medicaid; changed workers’ compensation laws; fixed the unemployment insurance debt obligation due the federal government; brought management and work rule changes to McCormick Place; privatized the lottery; passed enabling legislation to allow the use of public-private partnerships to finance and build infrastructure; restructured utility regulations; and scaled back the impact of recent corporate income tax increases.

Although one year does not make a trend, it is noteworthy that the state neither underfunded nor borrowed to meet this year’s pension obligation. It is also encouraging to see the General Assembly reassert its rightful role as a partner in the budgeting process and begin to put the brakes on the executive branch’s spending plans. The state still defies the constitutional mandate requiring a balanced budget, but a semblance of fiscal discipline has begun to reappear in the Capitol.

While the Democrats claim credit for the progress, the Republican minority has had substantial influence on these laws as well. They are getting results, achieving more accountability and challenging the Democratic majority to implement changes that extend beyond traditional approaches. Indeed, many of the measures of consequence have been adopted with a significant number of bipartisan votes.

However, the incremental approach that Springfield Democrats have undertaken simply does not go far enough to mend the budget or fix the economy. Despite progress, the work is far from done. Legislators must continue to restructure public employee pension laws, curb healthcare costs and downsize to match revenue. The Statehouse crowd must also revisit workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and taxes to improve Illinois’ business climate.

To Governor Quinn’s credit, he has gotten the message about the need to focus on job growth and to comfort disgruntled employers weary of the state’s past performance. But with a liberal approach to government support for unions and entitlement programs, it has proven hard for the populist governor to acknowledge that his tenure coincides with tough economic times, limited means and the recognition that more taxation is not the way back to prosperity.

When the General Assembly returns to work this month, they will again confront fiscal issues that overshadow the state’s path to recovery. It remains to be seen if they have the long-term discipline to stay the course as they approach another election. iBi

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