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posted: 11/28/2011 5:40 AM

The red-ink elephant under the dome

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State legislators reconvene Tuesday in the Capitol in an extension of the fall session created to cut deals to keep Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange based in Illinois. While we support keeping those two institutions here, especially Hoffman Estates-based Sears, we sadly predict Democratic and Republican legislators again will ignore the red-ink elephant in the room. Or, in this case, under the dome. That metaphorical elephant is the enormous debt crisis Illinois faces.

We've called upon legislators, union officials and the governor repeatedly to figure out some further structural changes to the state's pension systems to address an $85 million underfunding hole, one of the biggest nationwide. This newspaper, The Associated Press and most other papers around the state also recently collaborated on a project that detailed the widespread dramatic effects of Illinois being a deadbeat state, behind on paying hundreds of bills, at one point to the tune of $5 billion. We had a major 67 percent state income tax increase take effect in January. Despite that, officials continue to spend more than they should. They continue to avoid the biggest challenges they should be addressing.

Recently, we learned the out-of-whack state finances are getting worse. Public pension costs will increase by $540 million next year. The Springfield State Journal Register recently reported retirement system officials initially had said the state would need $5.33 billion for pensions next year, but recently revised that amount to more than $5.87 billion. That increase would eat up nearly every new dollar expected.

And just last week, Gov. Pat Quinn publicized a study he authorized that estimated the gambling expansion bill legislators approved last spring would generate $160 million in new revenue, not the $1 billion expansion proponents had estimated. Even if that report is off, it should be clear by now that gambling expansion is no panacea for our financial mess.

And yet, month after month, most legislators ignore the problem. There is no Springfield supercommittee. There is a budget task force and Park Ridge Democratic state Sen. Dan Kotowski has convened hearings, but a move to create a three-tiered pension system to address that significant part of the crisis gets ignored. Why? A primary looms next March and a general election in November. Public employees vote and participate in campaigns. They are fighting any moves, fearing changes will cost them money. Doing nothing will cost them or their successors money at some point. Doing nothing is costing all of us jobs now. It will cost our grandchildren more.

There always is another election looming. And these difficult decisions always will cause pain. The red elephant still stands. Compromise is not a dirty word. Neither is statesmanship. Oh, to see both in action in Springfield.