June 13, 2016

Study: Plenty of blame to go around for fiscal crisis

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new study indicates Illinois’ fiscal crisis stems from a “congenital failure” of leadership, along with voter unwillingness to appreciate the state’s financial issues and hold lawmakers accountable. 

The study, by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, points to statewide elected officials, legislators and voters as all bearing responsibility for Illinois’ debt crisis and government gridlock. The report, released today (June 13), states that “the leadership and political courage necessary” to overcome a long-term paradox of maintaining low taxes while meeting or increasing programs and services “has not been evident in Illinois politics” over the last 15 years. 

“The Climate of Opinion in Illinois 2008-2016: Roots of Gridlock,” offers a comprehensive review of the institute’s 10 statewide public opinion polls over the past nine years. The study examines the continuity and change in voters’ perceptions on issues including term limits, open primaries, redistricting, abortion, same-sex marriage and political party identification, and pays particular attention to the state’s financial woes. Illinois has a multi-billion dollar deficit and on July 1, will enter a second fiscal year without a formal budget. 

One of the report’s authors, John Jackson, a visiting professor with the institute, writes that discussions of possible widespread government shutdowns, and possible cutbacks in social service programs, K-12 and higher education, coupled with job losses, were not inevitable. 

“It was not foreordained; it was not an act of God or a tragedy wrought by Mother Nature,” the report states. “The actions taken were those of public officials responsible for the operation of the government. We can learn from instances when state government did not fail, when the budgetary chips were on the line, and when political leadership and courage were exhibited.” 

The report, available at http://paulsimoninstitute.siu.edu/publications/simon-review.php, is a hard-hitting assessment of what Illinois faces. 

“We are in a mess and it’s time that people wake up to that fact,” Jackson said. 

The study points to Simon Polls that consistently find no majority support for reduced spending in several areas, including K-12 education, public safety, higher education, social programs for people with mental or physical disabilities, and state pensions. Even with the budget impasse, however, there continues to be strong opposition to restoring the state’s temporary income tax increase that expired in January 2015. There is “real movement,” however, to create a more progressive income tax system, and support for a graduated income tax and a millionaires’ tax. Illinois is one of a few states that doesn’t tax retirement income; and support for taxing retirement income over $50,000 dropped from 56 to 54 percent between 2015 and 2016. Support for expanding gambling has hovered at or slightly above 50 percent for several years. 

The study points to strong actions of two former governors -- Richard Ogilvie, who initiated the state’s first income tax, and Jim Edgar, who worked to make a temporary tax increase permanent. Ogilvie and Edgar are viewed as among Illinois’ best governors in modern times, Jackson said. Ogilvie and Edgar, both Republicans, worked with Democratic and Republican lawmakers and state leaders in a bi-partisan approach. Edgar and the General Assembly at that time also achieved balanced budgets with real revenues. 

“You had leaders who had some courage and who understood that you have to get out front and take some hard choices, and then sell those choices to the people and make people understand what you did and why,” Jackson said. “We don’t have leaders who are willing to take those chances any more, apparently. They are failing to compromise and to understand that democracy and the legislative process require compromise; that the big decisions require support from both parties and leadership to put together the coalitions that are necessary to do the hard stuff.” 

Jackson said there is not enough “citizenship education” of voters, and it is important for public education and the media to do a better job. The report states that political leadership and political courage are important, even crucial, for a successful democracy. 

“Political elites must have the courage to tell the truth, and to make fact-based arguments about the hard topics such as tax and budget realities. They then must have the capacity to explain their actions to the public and defend those actions in the next election,” the report states. 

Voters, meanwhile, “must pay attention and respect the facts and realities, and demand empirical evidence for the claims being made by candidates for office,” the report states. That includes paying attention between elections, as well as to political ads and political commentary on social media.

The study examined data that shows voters “bear significant responsibility” for Illinois’ current situation. 

“Not only did they elect the leaders responsible for this state of affairs, but their steadfast insistence on the untenable high-service/low tax status quo gave the politicians permission to drive the vehicle of state to the edge of the cliff, where it teeters today on the brink,” the report states. 

One evolving social issue where the study shows there was significant change is with same-sex marriage. Support for gay marriage has risen from 29 percent in 2009 to 53 percent in 2016. Opposition, meanwhile, decreased from 31 percent to 16 percent over the same timeframe. 

Jackson also said while people identify themselves as more conservative than liberal, Illinois appears overall as more of a “blue” or Democratic-leaning state. 

“But that being said, while Illinois is routinely identified as a blue state, it is clear that Republicans can win statewide elections and it is better thought of as a competitive state which only leans toward the Democratic Party,” Jackson said.