Illinois General Assembly squanders its chance at redemption

If you thought the problem with Illinois politics was Rod Blagojevich, the embarrassing denouement of the state legislature's spring session has proved you wrong.

After six years of paralysis as Blagojevich, House Speaker Mike Madigan, and Senate President Emil Jones played an infantile blame game, at the beginning of the year the General Assembly was presented with an incredible chance to undo the accumulated damage to our state. Last year Emil Jones abruptly retired (on his way out enfeoffing his son in his Senate seat, which is now apparently inheritable property). He was replaced by John Cullerton, a North Side Senator with a reputation as a reformer. Then Blagojevich was indicted and subsequently removed from office in January, replaced by reformer Pat Quinn.

The new alignment of forces in Springfield came just in time for state government to tackle an enormous budget deficit of $12 billion, caused partly by the economic crisis and partly by decades of budgetary mismanagement. At the same time Springfield had the opportunity to finally pass a state capital bill - 10 years overdue - to fund investment in roads, schools, and transit, and got its best chance in decades to make reforms that might start to address Illinois's culture of public corruption.

Four months later we can see what the legislature has done with all this promise: mostly tossed it in the garbage.

A capital bill was finally passed, and it included a slight improvement in the funding ratio of transit to roads (now 1:1.5 instead of the previous 1:2) as well as two major victories: $850 million in rail investment for Illinois and $425 million for green jobs and job training in weatherization focused on poor areas in the state. But the total funding for transit is barely enough to keep the system limping along, much less expand it to meet current needs, and the revenues are largely to be raised from a regressive expansion of gambling and sales taxes rather than the far more useful increase in the state gas tax that was discussed early on.

The legislature also passed a raft of measures supposedly aimed at eliminating corruption, including a couple of truly useful ones. But on the three most important issues - campaign finance, gerrymandering, and the overwhelming power of the legislative leaders - reforms were ignored or shot full of holes. What we need is publicly financed elections, a nonpartisan process for the drawing of legislative districts, and restrictions on the nearly dictatorial power that the House speaker and Senate president currently wield. What we got was a lot of hypocritical speechifying about how the General Assembly was cleaning up Illinois politics.

The biggest failure of all was the budget. Illinois faces a massive decline in revenues because of the economic crisis, combined with a long-term structural deficit. That leaves us with a gaping $12 billion deficit - nearly 1/4 of the state's spending is currently unfunded!

This should have been an opportunity to rectify some of the injustices of the Illinois tax system while raising the revenue needed to fund essential services. Illinois has the fifth lowest tax burden in the country as a percentage of income, but that burden is distributed by class in such a way as to make the state's already unacceptable inequalities even worse. The bottom twenty percent of state residents by income faces the fourth-highest tax burden in the country, while the top one percent ranks 40th in the country.
The problem is that Illinois suffers from a constitutionally-mandated flat tax, which skews tax assessments against the poor and in favor of the wealthy. Amending the constitution to abolish the flat tax is an urgent priority, but in the meantime the fiscal crisis gave us an opportunity to make significant reforms to the tax system, making it both fairer and more sound at the same time.

The Senate seized that opportunity and passed Senator James Meeks's bill. Meeks has fought heroically for years to reduce Illinois's appalling school funding inequalities, and this tax reform would begin that process in addition to raising revenue and making the tax burden more equitable. The Senate bill would permanently raise the personal income tax from 3 to 5 percent, but it would cushion the blow to the middle class and exempt the working poor by tripling the earned income tax credit, raising the personal exemption from $2,000 to $3,000, and doubling the state property tax credit. The bill also included $2 billion in spending cuts, in addition to the $5 billion in revenue it would raise.

Senate President Cullerton's leadership this term has been somewhat disappointing, as he maneuvered away from raising gas taxes and has issued several apologias for the General Assembly's failure to pass robust measures against corruption. But his championing of the Meeks bill, which had been driven forward by the Senate’s African-American caucus, was a strong assertion of his independence from House Speaker Madigan and a lonely progressive bright spot in the otherwise barren General Assembly performance.

Madigan, on the other hand, has once again demonstrated that, now that Blagojevich is gone, he is the problem in Illinois politics. Wielding nearly dictatorial powers over his chamber, he chose not to bring the Meeks bill for a vote and instead put forward a wholly inadequate temporary tax increase, which he then blithely allowed to meet a crushing defeat, 74-42. Madigan himself voted for this bill, but he used none of his power to bring the members into line behind it. As Rich Miller, one of the most informed and nonpartisan commentators on Illinois politics, put it:
You cannot tell me with a straight face that Speaker Madigan did any serious heavy lifting this session. When real leadership was required, he sat back and let the train of government go completely off the tracks.
Meeks himself agrees:
"You have been campaigning for a tax hike for 20 years, and nothing has happened," Meeks said. "Why? What's the one thing that has remained constant in those 20 years? Michael Madigan as a leader in the House. Everybody else in leadership is gone. If Madigan wanted this bill passed, it would have been passed."
Madigan is not the only villain here. Quinn's potential competitors for the 2010 Democratic nomination for governor, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan (Michael Madigan's daughter) and Comptroller Dan Hynes, have resorted to irresponsible demagogy against the prospect of raising taxes, as have the Republicans. But Madigan - probably the most powerful individual in Illinois politics - is the one who could have solved the problem, and has instead stood in the way.

Quinn, on the other hand, has fought doggedly, if occasionally ineptly, for a fair resolution to the crisis, and he is by far the most commendable candidate for governor next year. He continues to push for a resolution to this mess, and has called the General Assembly back into session for further negotiations and another vote next week. If Madigan again lets the tax increase die, the consequences will be dire: catastrophic cuts to state programs in healthcare, education, and aid to the most vulnerable people in the state - the developmentally disabled, poor children, recovering drug addicts, the homebound elderly, and many others.

Here is how your elected representatives voted on each of the budget bills: House and Senate. Call them and voice your support for HB 174, the Meeks bill, which is by far the best solution to this debacle. If they vote against essential state services, they have no right to your vote next year.

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