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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 03:13 am

Topinka's last best chance

Voters need something better than her Rod-like casino stopgap plan

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There is still time for Judy Baar Topinka to talk straight to the people of Illinois. That’s the only thing that might help her win this disappointing campaign against Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his phony fiscal proposals. Time is running out for her. She must try a desperate tactic: honesty.

Lately the two candidates have been trading ads about which of them most resembles former Gov. George Ryan, who’s heading for jail around Inauguration Day. But the real scandal in Illinois is that the state can’t pay its bills, let alone fund programs for economic and social progress — and so far neither candidate has a credible plan to address the state government’s insolvency.

Topinka’s campaign already acknowledges that Illinois faces a “structural deficit,” meaning that state revenues, as they are set up right now, just can’t keep pace with increasing spending needs. She blasts Blagojevich for running up a deficit of $3.1 billion, which he absorbs by failing to meet pension-funding obligations, postponing bill payment, and borrowing cash from special funds. She proposes a property-tax freeze, paid for by having the state pick up more of the school-funding tab. But she stops sort of the logical final ingredient to a responsible plan: an increase in the state income tax. Oh, she acknowledges that a tax increase, with property-tax relief, is the only “long-term solution,” but, instead of endorsing such a plan right now, she proposes a stopgap worthy of Rod himself: a new Chicago-area land-based casino and expanded gambling at existing riverboats. She says this would generate $1 billion in one-time income and $600 million a year.

Illinois has had enough of one-shot deals just to get us through the next fiscal year or the next election, and we’re tired of balancing the state budget on the backs of the stupid who gamble. Topinka’s plan for a new casino is less of a gamble than Blagojevich’s radical proposal to privatize the state lottery for an infusion of cash. That proposal calls for $4 billion of the lottery-sale proceeds to be pumped into education over the next four years — but after four years education funding falls off a cliff, with no new revenue to replace the lottery windfall.

There is a glimmer of hope that Illinois voters are ready to accept the obvious and agree to an increase in the income tax. A recent Copley News Service poll said 50 percent of voters believe that a “tax swap” — an income-tax increase in exchange for property-tax relief — would be acceptable. Commenting on the poll, Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability said this: “I think it’s very clear [that] voters in Illinois show they pretty much support a tax increase at the state level. The only reason you don’t see higher numbers is, they don’t trust Springfield to deliver the tax relief.” As Martire points out, paying for public services with increased taxes isn’t evil, liberal, or conservative. It’s responsible.

Even though Topinka’s proposal to sell a casino license is more practical than the governor’s plan to sell the lottery, it all looks like gambling gimmickry in voters’ minds. As long as her solution looks so much like his, she can’t be convincing when she charges him with running state finances into the ground. She also must keep in mind that Green Party candidate Rich Whitney has proposed comprehensive tax reform to give Illinois enough revenue to eliminate the deficit and implement school-funding reform. Unless Topinka gets real on this issue, those who care most about fiscal responsibility will vote Green.

It would be refreshing if Topinka were to give us an “October surprise,” announcing that Illinois finances are in worse shape than she’d earlier realized and that the time for her long-term solution, an income-tax increase, is now. That kind of honesty would get voters’ attention and breathe new life into her campaign.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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