Get ready for a season of promises

Posted5/23/2014 5:01 AM

In 1933, newly elected Illinois Gov. Henry Horner took office at the height of the Great Depression. A huge chunk of the state's workforce was unemployed, many schoolteachers had not been paid in over a year, and in Springfield the National Guard had to disperse anti-hunger marchers.

Horner was a man with a unique political background. He was recognized as a scholarly and honest public servant who had also learned Chicago politics as a precinct captain in "Hinky Dink" Mike Kenna and "Bathhouse John" Coughlin's First Ward. The major accomplishment in Horner's initial year in office was the passage of the state's first sales tax (called then the Retail Occupational Tax). This 2 percent tax generated much-needed revenue to keep the state from going under or, said another way, it kept government alive -- if not healthy. Move to today. Once again Illinois (and other local governments as well) faces serious economic pressures -- the worst since the Great Depression. Whoever wins the November gubernatorial election will face daunting challenges in 2015 -- just like Horner did in 1933. Unfortunately, before a new governor in Republican Bruce Rauner or a re-elected Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn can tackle the state's fiscal abyss there will be a political campaign -- one that will most likely resemble a trip to Disneyland than a realistic discussion of government's economic woes and possible solutions. Let's get started.


First stop: Adventureland. Both Quinn and Rauner will talk about exciting potential solutions that will be largely "painless" to Illinois taxpayers. Whether hunting for new revenue or stalking decreased spending, few operational specifics will be stressed. Instead, the second-worse cliché in American politics will be used: "Everything will be on the table".

Next: Tomorrowland. Most likely both campaigns will be a combination of "Annie" the musical ("The sun will come out tomorrow") and Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind" ("Tomorrow is another day"). Promises, using mainly adjectives and adverbs, will be made about the state's fiscal future. Clearly, Rauner the challenger will have the advantage in the promise derby, but Quinn will also show his updated vision for the state.

And last: Fantasyland. I hope state-wise voters see through the fluff and fury of modern-day campaigns. No amount of campaign dollars can create a governmental Santa Claus -- or a wand that can whoosh away our economic woes or ruby slippers that can take the state back to solvency.

Illinois political and fiscal issues are complex and at times bewildering. Yet here are the simple facts: 1) we still cannot pay our bills despite a "temporary" state income tax that has added billions of dollars to our treasury; 2) public employee pensions are out of whack with taxpayers' ability to pay; and 3) unless all of our political leaders, union chiefs and special interest groups can find multiple levels of compromises, we will once again (here comes the worst cliché) kick the can down the road.

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Back in 1933 and throughout his stay in the state mansion, Horner did not become a governmental fiscal magician. The state's deep economic woes coupled with his breaking away from the Democratic Party's vaunted Kelly-Nash political machine in Chicago made his nearly two terms as governor an ongoing fiscal stress test of his patience and stamina. However, through it all Horner kept a level-headed understanding of governmental realities -- whether economic or political.

In 2015, Illinois will need solid and balanced leadership that does not promise gain with no pain. All Illinoisans must lose something in order for the state to get out of its economic hell hole.

• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg and Chicago.

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