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posted: 5/29/2014 1:01 AM

Editorial: The missing ingredient in budget debate -- trust

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

As the Illinois legislature wrestles -- again at the eleventh hour -- with a 2015 revenue-and-spending plan, making numbers work is only a tiny fraction of the challenge they face. The real issue here is trust.

For, the fact is, if Illinoisans trusted the budget makers, if we believed that spending was managed wisely, that priorities were based on objective standards of need and not political expediency, if we felt assured that $40 million allocations for a school no one asked for or late-in-the-process $200,000 allotments to libraries in politically sensitive districts were the rare exception rather than the rule, if we acknowledged that $35.7 billion -- the amount approved in a rough House budget on Tuesday -- just is not enough to get breakfast for poor kids, provide decent educations for the children of the state, take care of the needs of the elderly, or address myriad other entirely legitimate social needs people experience in our state, we wouldn't be so bitter. We wouldn't be so averse to providing the revenue to meet important needs.

But we don't have that faith. We've seen too many budgets thrust into the hands of lawmakers just hours from the deadline, the paper still warm from the copy machine. We've seen too many political deals cut. Heard too many reports like the auditor general's scolding this spring for the mismanagement of $55 million in funding for an anti-violence program. We've been told too many times that if taxpayers don't ante up, teachers won't have materials for their classrooms, firefighters won't have the equipment they need to save lives and homes, the elderly and infirm will, what?, be put out into the street, apparently.

So, yes, Mike Madigan, you did not have the votes this week to extend a tax increase that should never have imposed in the first place and that barely, if at all, accomplished its stated mission. And hopefully you will not have those votes next week or the week after that or the week after that or next month or next session or next year.

But, state leaders, you can get them. And the process starts this week.

All right, we acknowledge that somehow you've managed to let nearly four months slide by without seriously trying to demonstrate a commitment to fiscal responsibility beyond the promise that if taxpayers give you more money, you will spend it, and now you have just three days in which to fashion some viable way to make $35.7 billion satisfy all the needs of the state. We couldn't agree more with a governor's spokeswoman who said the House's budget "doesn't avoid the tough decisions; it postpones them."

What angers us is that the only "tough decision" many leaders want seriously to consider is the one asking for more money.

No, if lawmakers really want to create the atmosphere for solving Illinois' problems in the long term, they'll work in these frantic last three days to produce a foundation of trust -- to demonstrate that they're not just going to, in the governor's own words, "savage" the programs that people need, as in some sort of petulant act of revenge, but that they're going to commit to finding and eradicating real waste, prioritizing needs and differentiating them from wants. Show us that. Show us taxpayers a true good-faith effort that emphasizes real needs and eschews political sacred cows.

It won't happen in just three days, of course. But with a foundation begun this week and strengthened in the months ahead through aggressive transparency, uncompromising accountability and pure effort, we, first, will all be impressed by how much less you may need our money than you think now. And you, second, will be impressed at how cooperative we taxpayers can become when we are convinced that our help is really needed.

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