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03/17/2009

Train Wreck

  I'm on my way to Springfield this morning to begin the long anticipated (or dreaded) "Budget Fest".  Tonight, we'll get our first glimpse of Governor Pat Quinn's spending plan that will attempt to close the now $11.5 billion dollar deficit in Illinois finances.  The estimated total shortfall is a combination of money the state spent but didn't collect in taxes and fees last year added to the projected amount it doesn't have or cannot expect to collect during the next fiscal year.  Between the end of last year and now, the deficit has grown steadily from the initially reported $3 billion.  Its impossible to tell if the rising number is a matter of a worsening economy or a situation that's spun totally out of control.  Its probably some of both.

  As a reporter, you learn early on to avoid hyperbole.  Politicians, on the other hand, exaggerate for a living.  They are telling us this is "the worst financial crisis in the state's history" and love to blame the disaster on recently-ousted Governor Rod Blagojevich, as if he alone was responsible for it.  But according to Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation, Illinois consistently overspends its revenues and systematically carries the shortfall into the next year's budget.   Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability called the system "structurally dysfunctional" and blamed the political cowardice of past governors and state lawmakers who have not modernized Illinois taxation.  Martire says Illinois, among the states, has the fifth largest economy but ranks 45th in the amount of revenue it collects from taxes and fees. 

  A quick "google" indicates that Msall and Martire might be on the money (no pun intended) in their analyses.  In 2003, Blagojevich inherited a $5 billion dollar deficit from his predecessor George Ryan's administration.   Later that year, Comptroller Dan Hynes reported a $9 billion dollar "net deficit" and called it "the highest (of any state) in the nation".   Three years later, Hynes scolded Blagojevich for the state's growing deficit during a national economic upswing when Illinois income tax revenues actually increased $1.3 billion dollars and other state revenues were up $833 million.

  All the state's current top officials including Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan have been involved in Illinois government during the past six years as the situation reached critical mass.   While Quinn and Cullerton assumed their leadership roles only recently, Madigan has presided over his chamber as the state's finances have gone from bad to worse to "worst".  It will be interesting to hear what he has to say about solving the mess.

  After the briefing tonight, the Governor himself will address the General Assembly Wednesday.  Stay alert.  Train wreck just down I-55 a piece.

   

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