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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 01:02 am

Does not compute

Illinois may be hurting, but wait till the bill for Iraq comes due

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Maj. Tammy Duckworth led an Army National Guard unit during a tour in Iraq, where she was severely injured when her helicopter was shot down. Now the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, Duckworth says that the federal government is sh
PHOTO BY DAVID CARSON/MCT
Untitled Document The state of Illinois is teetering on the brink of financial calamity. In excess of $40 billion by most estimates, Illinois has the largest unfunded pension liability in the U.S. — more than five times the national average. Under the state’s current tax structure, the state cannot generate enough revenue to keep pace with current retiree benefits and pay down the unfunded portion at the same time.
The financing of K-12 education has also fallen victim to the state’s regressive tax system, which leans heavily on local property-tax revenue to support schools and pegs the state income tax at a flat rate of 3 percent. On top of pressure to increase education funding, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has pushed hard to expand health care, proposing rule changes that would extend coverage to another 717,000 low- and middle-income residents. The source of funding for that expansion, assuming that the lawmakers approve the requested rule changes, remains unclear. Politically, the state is as much of a disaster area, with leaders of the Democratic Party, which controls the Statehouse and all constitutional offices, unable to agree on a capital-spending bill to repair state-operated thoroughfares, let alone act to repair the tax code. These facts are not in dispute: The next several generations of Illinoisans will be saddled with heavy financial obligations that will likely come in the form of increased income- or sales-tax rates or severe cuts in services. But, really, the state’s problems are small potatoes. Just think about what will happen when the bill for the Iraq war comes due.
As one of the most populous states in the nation, and facing one of the most difficult budget crises of any state, can Illinois afford President George W. Bush’s war? The question has taken on some urgency as Congress deals with yet another request for funding for the war without end. In September, the Pentagon asked Congress for $42.3 billion more in Iraq war funding than was originally requested, bringing the total request to $190 billion for next year. That’s just a fraction of what the war is costing, though. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that war costs for the next 10 years could total roughly $472 billion if the troop level in Iraq falls to 30,000 by 2010, or $919 billion if it is decreased to 70,000 by 2013. Add those figures to amounts already allocated, and total spending for the global war on terror and on Iraq will reach $1.4 trillion by 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Spending on the war is taking resources from other areas, as evidenced in President Bush’s recent veto of a $35 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program that had bipartisan support but was rejected by the president as too expensive.
The National Priorities Project, a not-for-profit research organization that opposes the war, analyzes federal data, and estimates that U.S. involvement in Iraq will cost: · Every U.S. household $4,100.
· Every U.S. citizen $1,500. · Every U.S taxpayer $3,400. · $11 million per hour. · $275 million per day. But that’s really only half the story. During this war, unlike other major wars, the U.S. has cut taxes during a period in which military spending has increased, so much of the money spent on the war is borrowed, adding hundreds of billions of dollars in interest. Spending on health care for veterans and disability payments for the many wounded soldiers could also reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars, a cost to be borne by future generations. By the NPP’s calculations, the burden of the total cost of war to Illinois taxpayers, around $24.8 billion, could pay salaries for 431,000 teachers, finance construction of 223,000 housing units, and, theoretically, extend health insurance to 14.8 million more children. There are other hidden costs to the state. Members of the Guard number 13,200; roughly 3,000 are deployed in support of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them hold full-time jobs as police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical professionals. When these individuals are called to service, their employers must either replace them or go without their critical skills. Most cost estimates take only Defense Department payments into account for total war spending. According to a National Intelligence Estimate report published last year, U.S. involvement in Iraq has fueled radicalism and anti-American attitudes and therefore made the nation less safe. To protect against potential new threats, local and state governments will also be forced to put more money to into counterterrorism activities as a result. Also, there’s an incalculable cost to the state’s preparedness for natural disasters and terrorist attacks. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, members of Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard units — who could have helped save lives and protect property — were in Iraq. Illinois, many of whose Guard units have been sent on repeated deployments to Iraq in the past four years, is certainly as susceptible to destructive tornadoes as the Gulf Coast is to hurricanes. And with a dozen nuclear power plants dotting the state, which is also home to the nation’s tallest building, Chicago’s Sears Tower, how great is the cost of not having troops here to deal with acts of terror aimed at these sites? Military death benefits notwithstanding, how do we even begin to place a value of the 135 Illinois soldiers who have given their lives while serving?
Illinois’ economy has already started feeling the effect of war in the form of an expansion of programs for services for veterans. To help veterans coming back from fighting, Illinois has launched three new programs in recent years. One was put in place in place for soldiers with traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic-stress disorder. Another program, Veterans Care, renders health care to thousands of veterans who don’t qualify for coverage through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The state has also added 25 veteran service officers, who perform outreach to the state’s more than 1 million veterans and their families. In addition, grant funding for adaptive housing was increased from $123,000 in the 2006 fiscal year to $223,000 in fiscal year 2007 to assist disabled veterans, including those returning from the global war on terrorism, and an appeals office was established to increase benefits received by veterans. Maj. Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, says states are being forced to bear many of the costs associated with the war. Blagojevich appointed Duckworth, a highly decorated member of the Illinois Army National Guard, to the position in November 2006 after she lost a close congressional race to Republican Peter Roskam. (A rocket-propelled grenade hit the Blackhawk helicopter Duckworth was co-piloting during a mission in Iraq; she lost both legs, and her arm was shattered in the attack.) The Iraq war, Duckworth says, is the first in which significant numbers of Guard troops — close to 40 percent of all U.S. forces — have been deployed. When Guard members are activated, they must leave behind their homes, and therefore rent and mortgage payments, as well as jobs that often pay more than their military positions do. Veterans returning from overseas often face challenges in securing jobs, housing, and help with health needs that are unique to active-duty military personnel. Since she came to the IDVA, Duckworth says, the state has set aside $45 million, paid for with bonds, for housing programs alone, and she believes that the state will eventually have to build more veterans homes. In addition, employers who hire veterans can now take a $600-per-year tax credit. Illinois has also implemented mandatory testing of all Guard members for PTSD. “These are costs that the federal government is shifting to the state,” Duckworth says. “If we don’t do it, these vets end up homeless or in the prison system. They might start to self-medicate. On any night of the week, 20 percent of the homeless are veterans. “We’re still taking care of veterans of World War II and Vietnam,” she adds. While campaigning for Illinois’ 6th District congressional seat last year, Duckworth disagreed with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and criticized his execution of the war, calling for a congressional audit of war spending. Now an employee of the state, Duckworth says that she can’t talk about politics, although she disagrees with the argument that the war isn’t a local or state issue. “I don’t think we need to get in a debate over whether Illinois will take care of her veterans, because she will,” Duckworth says. “It’s a cost that we’ll pay for many, many years, but it’s a cost people are willing to pay in exchange for what these people have done for us.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com
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