Digging the state out of the hole it’s in
On Thursday, May 10, at the Rendezvous Room in the Wyndham Springfield City Centre, NPR Illinois and Illinois Issues presented the first in their most recent series of traveling forums happening across the state, sponsored by AARP Illinois. The forums are collectively entitled “Election 2018: Seeking Solutions” and the Springfield event was moderated by NPR Illinois news director Sean Crawford with panelists Jim Edgar, (Illinois governor, 1991-1999); Donne Trotter, (state senator, 1993-2018); Beverly Bunch (professor in the department of public administration, University of Illinois Springfield); and Brian Mackey (Statehouse reporter, NPR Illinois). Questions were fielded from audience members.
The forum’s title notwithstanding, the 2018 election was rarely mentioned directly during the proceedings, with most of the discussion revolving around lingering issues in the aftermath of the two-year state budget impasse.
“It’s better now than it was a year ago. It’s still terrible, but if you’re moving in the right direction, that’s some encouragement,” said Edgar. “Not having a budget for two years was the worst thing I have seen in 50 years. It was worse than the Blagojevich term by far, and that was bad.” The former governor went on to praise the 10 House Republicans who crossed party lines to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of the budget deal.
“We made modest gains last year and the biggest challenge is sustaining those gains as we go forward,” said Trotter, who also had praise for the decisive actions of the General Assembly in arriving at a budget solution. “We came out last year as a body and exhibited the power and force that we have and I see that continuing this year as well, so I have high hopes that we will be able to stay on that path.”
As for ways to move the state forward, the panel offered no simple answers.
“We are an aging state,” said Trotter. “People are moving out of our state so we are going to have to reinvent ourselves to deal with the new reality and there is nothing on the table that I know of that addresses that.”
Predictably enough, tax concerns were a frequent focus of the discussion. “I always cringe a little when I hear they’re going to freeze the local property tax,” said Bunch, “because that is going to hurt our schools unless the state is going to come in and help. We’re all in this together. It’s not the schools versus the state – we’re partners.”
“I have no problems with taxes,” said Trotter. “That pays for our quality of life – if we do not pay taxes then what we hold near and dear, we won’t have. But it needs to be fair. We need a graduated income tax. I believe that those who can afford to pay more, should. The flat tax hasn’t worked.”
When an audience member suggested that were the state of Illinois a business it might prudently declare bankruptcy, Edgar objected. “This is a very great state. We are a rich state, we just have had leadership that I think has made some mistakes,” he said. “One difference between Illinois and a private company entering bankruptcy is they don’t have any assets. We have a lot of assets. I think with strong leadership we can get this state back on track.”
Looking toward the coming elections, Mackey suggested that it is the duty of citizens to hold candidates responsible for providing details of their economic proposals, something which has proven elusive in the recent past. “Governor Rauner campaigned saying he did not have a specific agenda regarding organized labor. That turned out to not quite be the case once he was in office. It’s up to all of us to try to pin candidates down on specifics.” As an example, he mentioned that Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, who has expressed support of a graduated income tax, has so far not elaborated on what those rates might look like.
“I found, when I was an officeholder, my hearing worked best in an election year,” said Edgar. “I actually heard what people were saying and also remembered it later on. My suggestion is get on your candidates and tell them you don’t want a bunch of rhetoric and partisan bickering – you want to get the problems solved.”
Bunch brought up the idea of taxing retirement income, something she joked her family had urged her not to mention at an AARP-sponsored event. “If we have vulnerable people who can’t afford higher taxes, we don’t want to go after those people. But if we have retirees who have investment income and are living quite well, maybe they can step up and pitch in a little more. I think we need to have those tough discussions.”
“There are no silver bullets for these problems,” said Edgar, “and whatever the solutions are, they are going to be very unpleasant to everybody – more taxes, cutting programs, and we’re going to have to stay on that diet for many years. It took us 20 years to get into this hole and it’s going to take us a lot of years to get out of it. But we need to start.”