Maybe the Cubs’ splendid success and the rancorous presidential campaign are defensible distractions. But it’s almost as if we’ve all forgotten just how cavernous a chasm the state of Illinois is in.
The stopgap budget approved just before the All-Star break was designed to help the state limp past the election. So beginning next Wednesday, expect Gov. Bruce Rauner to revive a recalibrated “Turnaround Agenda” and reasonably villainize House Speaker Michael Madigan for refusing to take one step toward middle ground.
Meanwhile, Illinois’ debt continues to swell, adding $5.4 billion (that’s another $419 for each resident) this fiscal year, taking it past $125 billion. The state has lost 12,700 manufacturing jobs in the past year — more than a few of them in McLean County.
Illinois’ credit rating is just a couple clicks above “junk” status, with one rating agency projecting the state’s unpaid bills will reach a record $14 billion by next summer, threatening further financial turmoil for schools, transit and social service agencies and more personal trauma for the people they serve. All this is happening while the state teachers pension fund tells us, at the minimum, the state must ante up $4.56 billion in the coming fiscal year — $561 million more than this year.
Yes, Illinois is a train wreck. But wait. There’s an election just three days from now — a chance to do something about it, right? Wrong.
Because no term limits are in place, legislative leaders who’ve overseen the state’s decline will continue their rule. And because the politically-charged Illinois Supreme Court denied voters a chance to curtail politicians’ control of the legislative redistricting process, little is likely to change.
So it’s business as usual. Only 61 of the 158 seats up for election in the General Assembly are contested. Three out of five times, voters have no choice in legislative races. It’s even more likely than that around here.
Bloomington-based senators Jason Barickman and Bill Brady don't have opponents. State Representatives Dan Brady of Bloomington, Keith Sommer of Morton and Thomas Bennett of Gibson City are all unopposed and probably relieved, given the unknowns surrounding what effect Donald Trump’s name at the top of the ballot will have on other Republicans. The only area state lawmaker being challenged is Forsyth’s Bill Mitchell, and his opponent has barely mounted a campaign.
These are all Republicans who, it can be argued, provide at least some counter-weight to Boss Madigan in Springfield. But let’s be clear: The state’s current mess isn’t solely thanks to Democrats.
What’s one to do?
Well, new petition drives to get term limits and an end to gerrymandering on a future ballot will likely be launched next year. Sign the petitions. In the meantime, press lawmakers to bring those issues to a citizen vote. They can do it. Those are long-term fixes.
In the shorter term, demand lawmakers make rational decisions, even when they’re hard and unpopular. That almost certainly means both tax increases and program cuts. It means nailing down a way to reduce pension costs.
And vote “no” on the “Lockbox” (aka “Safe Roads”) amendment on Tuesday. The last thing lawmakers need is a hard-to-reverse constitutional amendment that would tie one hand behind their backs while they try to dig the state out its fiscal pit.
As reported on the front page of this newspaper, a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll found 84 percent of Illinois registered voters think the state’s headed in the wrong direction; 47 percent want to leave. That’s telling.
Dive a little deeper into the poll results and you’ll find 57 percent of those under the age of 35 wish they didn’t live here. That’s scary.