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posted: 3/15/2010 12:01 AM

Illinois budget mess may require futile, stupid gesture

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The film opens with two men in need of hairline plugs and wearing dark suits seated uncomfortably close to each other in the formerly smoke-filled backroom of a state office building.

Visible out the rain-spotted window is the majestic cupola of the Illinois state Capitol building in Springfield.

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The men are discussing the state's imminent collapse under the weight of a $13 billion deficit.

"Over? Did you say 'over'?" asks the governor. "Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?"

Quietly and matter-of-factly, the powerful Speaker of the Illinois House comes to his senses and agrees with the governor.

"We could do it with conventional weapons that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part."

Yes, says the governor. "We're just the guys to do it."

"Let's do it!" shouts the speaker.

"Let's do it!" agrees the governor, as they march out of the office to execute the final hope to save Illinois.

Fade to black.

The next scene isn't a payback-parade as in the Oscar-snubbed classic film Animal House (1978). In that movie, a group of college fraternity brothers become enraged when their dean declares "no more fun of any kind" and expels them. They successfully retaliate by wrecking the college homecoming parade.

While the Illinois Legislature may resemble that cast of characters, the real-life case of finding a solution to state's current $13 billion budget fiasco is to be found elsewhere.

The "really futile and stupid gesture" is a state entry fee.

Perhaps you've been subjected to paying one while traveling out of the U.S. They sometimes also take the form of a fee you must pay to leave the country. Whatever.

Costa Rica and Peru charge American visitors a $30 tax. Belize $35. Ecuador $45. Chile $100.

Argentina tops the list. Visitors from the U.S. have to hand over $131 cash after deplaning in Buenos Aires.

If they can charge such welcoming fees, then Illinois - with its reputation for shakedowns, kickbacks, graft and greasy palms - should be able to demand at least $200 per person. It is really a travesty that we don't have some kind of pre-enjoyment fee demanded from visitors who arrive at O'Hare, Midway and Rockford International.

Those who would attempt to circumvent the entry fee by arriving at Gary International Airport or down in St. Louis would have to pass through a special Illinois booth. Others who would come from the east via the Skyway wouldn't be exempt either, or from the west across the bridges that span the Mississippi.

If you just charged an entry fee to the international arrivals at O'Hare and Midway last year, we might have been able to swerve around the current budget collision course.

There were 11 million international arriving passengers at both airports in 2009, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. At a per-head Illinois tax of $200, the state would have reaped a cool $2,200,000,000.

That is $2.2 billion. Not a bad start. Toss in the other airports, the Skyway and the bridges and we could be back on track. If it works, we could then look at charging a fee to those coming in from Wisconsin and maybe Indiana.

Sure, there would be some grousing from our international guests. Some might even stay home. But if they can't afford to pony up the price of a Gibson's double cut lamb chop dinner and a few dirty martinis, do we really want them here anyway?

Of course we wouldn't want to call it a tax, or even an entry fee. As Americans, we are much more adept and clever in disguising taxes and fees.

We could call it the "Lincoln's Grandmother Fund."

Or the "Michael Jordan Perpetual Care Endowment."

But I prefer something less cumbersome and more in keeping with our worldwide reputation.

Besides, no tourist from Albania is going to argue about paying the "Capone Tax."

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at chuckgoudie@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/ChuckGoudie.

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