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When the going gets tough, the tough form blue ribbon panels, task forces and committees.

More than a month after a report revealed the various departments and agencies of state government are using 263 different systems for tracking the flow of your tax dollars, the comptroller’s office and the governor’s office have agreed to form a steering committee to look into the situation.

The initial report, put together by Auditor General Bill Holland, found that many of the agency budgeting systems are more than 10 years old. Many of them cannot communicate with each other.

That means in order to get a comprehensive look at how state government is spending your money, someone has to tally up some of the numbers by hand.

Not only is that slow and cumbersome, but it can lead to mistakes.

By the time a final, supposedly comprehensive report on annual state spending comes out, it is often more than a year old, leaving lawmakers to essentially guess at their budget numbers, year after year. It’s just one more reason why the state is financially hobbled.

The solution seems pretty clear: All state agencies should use the same computerized accounting program for budgeting purposes.

But, that kind of thing costs money. And, as you know from watching state government these days, lawmakers are in the midst of negotiating a budget plan this spring that will drastically cut spending on a number of programs.

Remember that when the steering committee is named sometime this coming week.

The members will be tasked with laying out a timeline to fix the problem. Finding the money to actually pay for the fix? Well, that’s probably something another committee will have to deal with.

Sobering news

Even though you are paying higher taxes thanks to the lame-duck January income tax hike, Illinois remains on track to end the fiscal year with $8 billion in unpaid bills.

That sobering news was delivered last week by Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who is urging lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn to come up with a workable solution to the crushing debt.

“After years of hand-wringing about the state’s finances and deficit spending, here we are looking to end yet another fiscal year in the red,” Topinka said.

Quinn has proposed a way to ease the effects of this so-called hand-wringing. He wants to use some of the proceeds from the tax hike to borrow money to pay down the backlog of bills over a period of years.

Republicans say they want to cut spending and use the savings to pay down the balance.

Realists say lawmakers, who are up for re-election next year, might not have the guts to pull that off.

On Thursday, members of a House committee offered us a glimpse of how they hope to avoid cutting programs and services: They want the union representing thousands of state workers to give up the raises it agreed to under a contract negotiated by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn for the summer 30 days from now. Let’s the budgeting ugliness begin.

Red meat

Given the poor condition of the state budget, it’s not a complete surprise that some of the new laws being proposed this spring seem like something from the Great Depression.

Take, for instance, House Bill 3178, also known in General Assembly parlance as the “road kill bill.”

The measure would allow a person with a fur-bearing mammal hunting license to pick up and take road kill home. Presumably, this change would allow these folks to make some cash by selling the pelts of raccoons and other flattened animals. Or, they could just forego a trip to the grocery store and go ahead and eat the pulverized critters.

House Bill 6 would allow for the shooting of muskrat with a gun at any time during daylight hours. Of course, the aim of the legislation is to better control the varmint. But, it’s conceivable you could also make a big pot of muskrat stew if you nail enough of them.

Don’t forget to add some salt and pepper and save the broth for some gravy.

Grass is greener

State government isn’t alone in having money woes. Local governments also are trying to pinch pennies.

Legislation forwarded to the House floor last week would allow smaller towns to require residents to mow city-owned grassy right-of-ways around their homes.

It not only shifts the high price of gas to a residential lawn mower, but it keeps a town looking neat and trim.

 

-- Kurt Erickson is Lee Statehouse Bureau chief. He can be reached at kurt.erickson@lee.net or 217-789-0865.

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