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Thursday, March 18, 2010 05:59 pm

Why Quinn’s budget is dead on arrival


Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn

Like all of the budgets proposed by governors in the past few years, Gov. Pat Quinn’s spending outline last week was an almost complete fantasy.  It has pretty much zero chance of surviving intact and will have to be tossed out and substantially reworked before the session ends.

Unless the school interests can pull off a legislative miracle during an anti-incumbent election year, Quinn’s proposed one percentage point tax increase to prevent $1.3 billion in school funding cuts and pay another $1.5 billion in overdue bills to schools and universities is deader than a rock on a stump. House Speaker Michael Madigan made that pretty darned clear right after the speech.

Asked what he would do if the Republicans refused to cooperate on the budget, Madigan said his Democratic majority would have to go it alone. Asked if that meant he’d go it alone on a tax hike, he pointedly said “No.”

A few minutes later, appearing on public television’s “Illinois Lawmakers” program, Madigan said, “Let’s be straightforward about this. The people of America, the people of Illinois, they don’t want tax increases. They’re hurting.”

Madigan then praised the governor for having the courage to propose a tax hike in this climate, but quickly added: “That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

Shortly afterwards, Senate President John Cullerton made it crystal clear that his chamber would not take the lead on a tax hike. House GOP Leader Tom Cross indicated that he still has the hammer down on his members who might be amenable to a tax hike. “It’s not going to happen,” said Senate GOP Leader Christine Radogno.

Just like that, the whole thing was dead before Quinn’s voice had stopped echoing in the House chambers.

In a different year, the theory behind Quinn’s tax hike gambit wouldn’t be bad.

People despise Illinois government these days – for good reason – so a tax increase for state operations is pretty much out of the question. Most people do like their local schools, parents like their kids’ teachers, and property tax payers are fed up with constant increases. Using a tax hike to “save” the schools is far easier to do than justifying a tax hike to make more pension payments to state employees, or fund a state system widely derided as incompetent and corrupt.

But anybody who takes the time to look at this proposal knows it’s just too obvious of a setup. Gov. Quinn didn’t propose any cuts at all to the State Board of Education’s bureaucracy. Instead, the slashes were all classroom-related. And education took well over half of all the cuts Quinn proposed, despite being only about a third of the budget.

Rather than making a serious attempt to balance the budget in a reasonable, even-handed manner, the Quinn administration went far out of its way to strike maximum fear into the populace. The real motivation behind this gambit is just way too overt to be believable.

And does anybody really believe that Quinn will actually stick to his guns? Doubtful. The governor threatened a doomsday for social service providers last year and then blinked when his deadline approached. He’s an old school compassionate liberal. Everybody knows he doesn’t want to make these cuts and will do just about anything to avoid them.

There are those in the administration who say the tax hike for schools template can be used after the November election (assuming Quinn wins), when legislators feel safer about voting for it. The proposal, the insiders say, is more of a road map for the future than a plan to be implemented this spring.

The schools tax hike, they say, is also a way to lessen the pain of the inevitable Republican charge that the Democrats are not-so-secretly planning to raise taxes once they’re reinstalled in power in November. But if the “secret” plan is to raise taxes for schools and local governments, that might mitigate the political damage by giving Quinn a way to dodge claims on the campaign trail that he wants to raise taxes to prop up the bureaucracy. The polling numbers are turning so bad on taxes right now that Quinn needed to do something to save his political skin without totally abandoning his principles.

That’s all well and good and a dandy little political theory. In the meantime, the state is $13 billion in the red and still lacking a real plan to tackle it.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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