Pain, innovation must come first in Springfield

Just about a month ago, the Democrats who control Springfield approved a plan that increased our state income taxes by 67 percent, for what is supposed to be four years. Now Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is trying again to borrow $8.7 billion to pay off old bills.

He calls it restructuring the state’s debt. We won’t argue the semantics. What we will argue is that there should not be any borrowing considered in Springfield until we see significant, dramatic cutting and innovative action from our state government officials.

The bottom line is that Quinn is proposing spending $1.7 billion more than he did last year. That gives us no reason to believe he or the Democrats in Springfield realize how much they must change. We simply cannot continue to spend more. We cannot spend more than we take in, or would have taken in before the temporary tax increase. If we continue on this pace, Illinois will continue to be a deadbeat state.

Quinn likes to claim he has cut $3 billion since taking office two years ago. We don’t buy it. He has cut some. This week his office pointed to $20 million in cuts to the program that helps senior citizens pay bills, a $4.8 million cut in funding for school technology and a $2.1 million cut in domestic violence shelter funding. We know more cuts are proposed, but in his budget speech Wednesday, the only new cut Quinn specified was one in the Medicaid reimbursement rate, expected to save $550 million.

Quinn also proposed consolidating school districts, perhaps his most provocative idea that does deserve much more study. With little detail, he suggests that cutting two-thirds of superintendent salaries would save the state $100 million. Another $13 million from eliminating regional superintendents would be spent in classrooms, which cannot be counted as savings to the state at all.

Some of Quinn’s fellow Democrats suggest the governor wants to spend some of the borrowing proceeds on current state operations rather than on old bills. Quinn’s budget chief David Vaught vehemently denies that. And so the same old stale arguing goes in the state capitol.

After Quinn’s address, we heard several veteran state leaders demand that critics step up with alternatives to borrowing. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s your job. Several of you made this mess. We expect you to fix it. We elected you to lead and innovate. Instead, we have a governor who promised a state union just before the election that he wouldn’t lay any of its members off until mid 2012.

Nonetheless, leaders, you asked for alternatives. Let’s start with these: Rescind that promise to the union of no layoffs. Cut state salaries more. Don’t add nearly 800 new state workers as you plan. Approve a plan to trim future pension benefits for current state workers. Require state retirees to pay a fair portion of their health care coverage. Commit to freezing spending to last year’s level or lower. Consolidate the treasurer and comptroller’s offices to save $10 million. Work now with both political parties to craft a better plan and generate more ideas.

We understand the state is in crisis and the solutions will be painful. We don’t believe schools, social service agencies and others should suffer any more from a deadbeat state than they already have. We buy the argument that delaying paying old bills will drive up costs and drive out some jobs.

But borrowing your way out is what you did to create this structural deficit. Spending more than you take in only adds to the problem and increases the likelihood that the temporary tax hike won’t fade. And, as someone wiser than us once said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.