July 4, 2016
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
The budget that isn't
Democrats and Republicans in Springfield did the best they could to fashion a state budget truce. But the voters have a right to expect better.
When pigs fly, as the old saying goes, it's unfair to grade them on the technical proficiency of their landings and takeoffs. If they can just get off the ground, it's enough.
So perhaps it's unfair to judge the temporary budget deal overseen last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner and members of the General Assembly by the traditional standards. The bipartisan agreement represents failure, to be sure. But since it's not complete, total, irredeemable failure, it's being touted as a victory, one Gov. Rauner touted as a "bridge to reform."
If the temporary budget really represents a bridge, it's a rickety monstrosity that couldn't pass a safety inspection. But that's where Illinois is these days, a borderline failed state whose leading officials can't agree on what to do next except tout their credentials for re-election in November.
For those who haven't had the stomach to follow the sausage-making in Springfield, legislators passed a temporary six-month budget to fund state services, including universities, social services and road construction, agreed on spending that assures K-12 schools will open on time and remain open the entire school year and fashioned an aid package to boost the failing Chicago school system.
For the most part, they agreed to put off until tomorrow what they did not have the political will to do today - pass a permanent budget for the 2016-17 school year that began July 1.
In doing so, they apparently turned their backs on the 2015-16 budget year that ended June 30. How time flies when legislators ignore their constitutional responsibilities.
From all the evidence, it seems clear that legislators were motivated, mostly, by concerns that their failure to agree on something would jeopardize the start of the K-12 school year. The image of angry parents looking for someone to blame in each of the state's 102 counties was sufficiently compelling to legislators to encourage them to fashion a compromise deal that includes more money for K-12 schools, especially Chicago.
One could call it a semi-bailout because it includes an extra $100 million in extra state aid to Chicago schools, an additional $200 million to pay for Chicago teachers' pensions and legislative clearance for the school board there to raise property taxes by $250 million.
Gov. Rauner had insisted he would not "bail out" the Chicago schools. But in the end, he approved a compromise to get the deal done. There's nothing wrong with that. Power, after all, is divided between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature.
Political circumstances require they compromise on tough issues, meaning that both sides are entitled to get some of what they want by making distasteful concessions.
But so far, that's exactly what they have been unable to do on the big questions.
Gov. Rauner hasn't won the structural reforms he says he needs to make Illinois an economically stronger state. At the same time, Speaker Madigan has yet to get the tax increases he so desperately wants and needs to maintain the status quo.
Because this temporary budget deal leaves those issues unaddressed, it's a cessation of legislative hostilities that will resume after the political hostilities are concluded in November.
Despite the agreement, no one should be under any illusions of progress. Gov. Rauner pointedly stated that "this is not a balanced budget." It's being funded by general fund revenues, in part, and sweeps from special funds that will almost assuredly never be repaid.
In that sense, the much-touted budget agreement is really more of the same delay, deferral and denial that pushed this state to the edge of the financial cliff.
July 2, 2016
Stop-gap spending plan doesn't solve Illinois budget problem
Newspapers across Illinois, including this one, shared an editorial Wednesday calling for Gov. Bruce Rauner and State House Speaker Michael Madigan to end their game of political chicken and, at long last, give us a state budget.
The headline said it all: "Enough."
Has the state legislature become so dysfunctional that its members believe the stopgap deal reached at Thursday's deadline entitles them to bouquets and parades?
On the final day of the fiscal year, with their backs against a deadline and under pressure from justifiably impatient constituents, they approved a partial spending plan that includes $11 billion to ensure schools can stay open until spring.
That's a relief to educators and parents but, really, it's a minimum-effort capitulation that doesn't scratch the surface of what's "enough."
The $75 billion measure keeps the lights on at the state Capitol Building through December and sets the stage for an ugly referendum on our elected officials. But what of the long-term health of our state's economy?
What of the integrity of the Illinois constitution? For the second straight year, Rauner, Madigan and those who fall behind into their divided camps have collectively thumbed their nose at it.
And what of the freshmen legislators who will be newly elected this November? They'll have the privilege of sorting out a mess left by their predecessors just in time for the treasury to run dry.
Some, including Republican Sen. Dave Luechtefeld and Democratic Rep. Jay Hoffman have said the negotiated $75 billion spending deal is "a good start."
Good starts don't happen at the 11th hour, least of all when your state is facing its second straight fiscal year as the only one without an operating budget.
Not by a damn sight.
July 4, 2016
Keep a watchful eye on who gets our Great Lakes water
A neighbor needed a drink of water. We gave her one.
But at the risk of seeming uncaring, let's not make this a habit.
Last month, the governors of the eight Great Lakes states, including Illinois, signed off on the first request to take water out of the Great Lakes basin since a 2008 agreement to protect our water went into effect.
The governors held out for several significant revisions in the request from the Wisconsin city of Waukesha, which wanted to divert the water because its wells are tainted with radium. In the end, environmental groups that had been almost universally opposed were mostly satisfied.
But the big question is whether the states will use the power they insisted on to monitor the deal - and avoid making this a bad precedent - in the future. It's easy to imagine Illinois or New York getting distracted with homegrown issues. That can't be allowed to happen.
The Great Lakes don't provide water just for drinking and recreation. The lakes are the environmental and economic heart of the region, a source of jobs and a means of transportation. They underpin the region's entire ecosystem and define our unique identity.
In a world where fresh water is expected to be an increasingly scarce commodity, it's essential we protect the lakes. Because only 1 percent of the Great Lakes water is recharged each year through rainwater and other sources, shipping water outside the basin could be disastrous.
But the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Joyce Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation say they are reassured by safeguards added to the Waukesha request.
Although Waukesha will be permitted to divert up to 8.2 million gallons of Lake Michigan water a day - less than it had requested - it will be required to pipe back a similar amount of treated wastewater into the Great Lakes basin, meaning there is no net loss. Adjoining towns that didn't need the water were trimmed from the request. Also, Waukesha will be subject to comprehensive audits and enforcement to ensure it is abiding by the deal.
The agreement gives the power to monitor the deal to Canada and the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. It is no small responsibility.