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Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 10:07 am

Everyone saw a crash coming

Budget disaster demands response from us all

Imagine that while you’re on an airplane nearing its destination, the pilot announces that there’s not enough fuel to land safely. The plane could be refueled in mid-air, but the crew won’t do it. The pilot must determine whether to steer the aircraft to a crash on land or in the water. But before he makes that decision, the captain allows the crew to bail out.

It’s hard to fathom such a scenario playing out in real life where airline crews time and again have acted quickly to avert disaster. Yet in mid-July on the ground in Springfield a similar scene played itself out with an all-star cast of veteran political actors, with extras posing as real lawmakers.

It’s not as though the state’s budget problems suddenly appeared like a bolt of lightning. The signs had been on the horizon for more than a decade. As early as 1995, studies predicted the long-range problems of trying to fund a 21st-century government with a mid-20th century tax system.

The teetering foundation on which Illinois state budgets were structured collapsed under the weight of a disgraced former governor’s failed policies and the worst economic downturn in more than 70 years.

The result is the disaster one would expect. And the shame of it is that this unfolding tragedy could have easily been avoided.

The pain will be felt by folks of all ages: pre-schoolers denied the advantages of early childhood education; K-12 students coping with larger classes; young people working their way through college with little or no scholarship money; and senior citizens who are losing property tax relief and prescription drug programs.

Then there are the most vulnerable among us: mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals whose services will be cut or eliminated; women under orders of protection who may lose a place in the shelter that has been their temporary home and refuge; and the poor who depend on the help of state-aided charities.

The state budget crisis reaches much farther than the 2,500 state employees represented by our union, AFSCME, who face layoffs. County probation officers and public health workers and community-based human services agencies all have jobs funded with state dollars. Essential state functions – including safe prisons, care for the disabled and more – may be decimated.

A plane crash resulting from circumstances beyond anyone’s control is a tragedy. A budget disaster authored by feckless politicians, who would sooner risk the health, safety and well-being of their constituents than take the political risk of supporting a tax increase, is a crime.

Those legislators who refused to support the revenue increases the state needs to keep services afloat and now proclaim they oppose the governor’s cuts are hypocrites of the first order. They are complicit in the crime and nothing less than a reversal of their position will absolve them of the responsibility.

Responding to AFSCME members at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Sen. Larry Bomke had the good sense to publicly proclaim his willingness to vote for a tax increase to prevent disastrous service cuts and widespread job loss. But other officeholders, rather than responding positively to the pressure, whine about being picked on. The job of citizens who depend on public services is to make it clear that legislators who won’t support needed revenues are effectively wielding the budget ax and causing the pain.

We have been down this road before, but this time it’s a lot bumpier. A budget deficit estimated to be as high as $10 billion is not a hole, it’s a crater, and clawing our way out of it is going to require a colossal effort. Building a political mandate to raise revenues will require all of us who care about public services—including education, health care, public safety, human services and more—to make our voices heard.

AFSCME members are in the forefront of the fight to save services and protect jobs. But we’re counting on all those who rely on the services we provide to join us. The Illinois budget crisis affects us all.

Henry L. Bayer of Chicago is director of AFSCME Council 31, the largest union representing Illinois state government employees.
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