Lawmakers like Elgin's Democratic Sen. Mike Noland who appear eager to generate revenue through a graduated income tax in Illinois should consider a couple of thoughts beforehand.
The first from Park Ridge's Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, speaking alongside Noland and other suburban lawmakers at the Hoffman Estates Chamber of Commerce's legislative luncheon last week: "We still have areas within the state budget that aren't evaluated for performance. ... We need to make sure that we're doing a better job of being stewards of taxpayers' dollars."
The second from numerous reports seeping out of Springfield in the past week regarding cost items in the $50 million renovation of the state Capitol: two sculptures costing $78,000-plus each; four chandeliers costing more than $80,000 each; and nearly $670,000 -- $670,000! -- for three sets of copper-plated wooden doors.
Most lawmakers, predictably, have been quick to express outrage and surprise at the renovation excesses, so it seems almost pointless to issue a scolding on that subject -- though, make no mistake, a scolding is certainly warranted. But reflection on the expenses has more value in the context of Kotowski's statements. Indeed, they almost seem timed to punctuate the senator's message.
In the no-win verbal tug-of-war over whether Illinois has a "revenue problem" or a "spending problem" at least one thing is clear. The state is woefully ill-equipped or unwilling to gain control of its spending. Rampant indiscriminate categorical spending cuts are one thing, and they may in fact put at least some pressure on lawmakers and bureaucrats to take better care of the money remaining in their charge. But such cuts don't guarantee that the spending that continues is well managed or even necessary.
Typically, the response from the House speaker's office regarding the expenditures at the Capitol was an almost indifferent observation that they went through the usual bidding process and were approved by an oversight board containing representatives from the offices of all four legislative leaders. That hardly excuses the expenditures, though, and indeed simply reinforces the impression that whoever is minding the store in state government -- and that body includes numerous lawmakers, policymakers and government leaders -- isn't paying very close attention.
In the coming months, Illinois residents are going to be bombarded with a three-point message from so-called tax reformers: 1) Illinoisans pay less per capita than most other states for government services; 2) many cuts have already been made to critical services; and 3) the expiration of the 2011 "temporary" income tax increase will force even more, and more dramatic, cuts.
On its own, each point might be a worthwhile topic of discussion. But in a state that can spend $670,000 on six doors or $160,000 on two statues in the midst of the deepest recession it has seen in decades, there is clearly neither a sufficient commitment nor an adequate sense of, to use Kotowski's word, stewardship even to begin talking.