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posted: 5/13/2014 5:01 AM

Editorial: Political risk should not kill a good budgeting idea

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

In concept, a proposal from Democratic state Sen. Dan Kotowski to open the automatic funding of about 26 state programs to more scrutiny seems to be a classic no-brainer. Who wouldn't agree, for example, that programs like the Agricultural Premium Fund, the Coal Technology Development Assistance Fund, the Intermodal Facilities Promotion Fund or even the Youth Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Prevention Fund should have to demonstrate their level of need before the state budgets funding for them? Especially when we see that the sum total of aid at issue here is $2.1 billion.

The concept seems to fall naturally into line with a similar Kotowski measure that eventually became law requiring annual assessment of need before approving any state spending. And in that spirit, it is a good idea. But issues in Springfield are never simple, so of course there is something to worry about here.

For one thing, many of the affected agencies and programs manage their own budgets based on predictable amounts they are led to expect from the state. Requiring more scrutiny could disrupt the flow of their budgeting, not to mention lay open the possibility that they might not be able to keep their own funding promises, For an operation like the Regional Transportation Agency -- which is among the programs targeted for increased review -- that is no small matter, either logistically or in terms of the transportation programs, including Pace, Metra and CTA, it oversees.

For another, about two-thirds of the money in play in this legislation goes to one program -- the Local Government Distributive Fund, which provides significant allotments to suburban municipalities and other communities to help avoid property tax increases. Political gamesmanship with this fund took center stage last week as the DuPage Mayors and Managers shifted positions uncomfortably under fears -- if not outright threats -- that towns' funding could be eliminated if leaders didn't fall in line supporting continuation of the 5 percent state personal income tax. Kotowski's bill pointedly cracks open this fund for potential meddling, and for people concerned about local services and property taxes, that could be a scary proposition.

But neither of these concerns has to automatically end discussion of an idea whose fundamental goal is accountability. To the contrary, no program should be immune from justifying its need before receiving money from the state. Had that philosophy been in place five years ago and more, we might have streamlined government spending earlier and avoided some of the crippling problems we're dealing with today.

Nothing ever seems to be as easy as it at first sounds in Springfield, but that doesn't mean that complexity, even a certain degree of risk, automatically eliminates good ideas. Transparency and accountability are critical in Illinois budgeting. We shouldn't allow them to be used as political weaponry, but we ought not fear them either.

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