Editorial: 'Pork' and the matter of trust in Illinois spending

  • About $300,000 in the state's capital plan, Rebuild Illinois, is allocated for dog parks, including one for the Fox Valley Park District.

    About $300,000 in the state's capital plan, Rebuild Illinois, is allocated for dog parks, including one for the Fox Valley Park District. Daily Herald File Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

"Pork," as in legislative largesse, isn't always bad government, but it certainly can make a bad first impression.

Like $300,000 for dog parks. Or $250,000 to refurbish wood doors at the Evanston Historical Center.

Both of these "luxury" items show up amid hundreds of local-project earmarks in the six-year, $45 billion capital funding program the Illinois legislature passed last week, a program otherwise filled with vital public works projects for every corner of the state, including $400,000 to rebuild the Farnsworth Avenue Bridge in Aurora, $1.18 million to fix flooding at Interlaken Road in Libertyville and $137,500 to improve pedestrian signals at National Parkway and Higgins Road in Schaumburg.

In general, the capital budget doesn't appear to be money spread around for patronage hiring. Rather, it seems mostly focused on building, fixing and enhancing projects that will benefit the public. But there is a fine line between expenditures that make sense even in dire financial times and ones that would stick out like a sore thumb at any time.

Are dog parks and historic doors terrible, useless projects? Not automatically. They just aren't necessary. Nor do they do much to create jobs, unlike the infrastructure projects that will put money in Illinoisans' pockets which in turn will get spent in their communities.

And at a time of great cynicism about the legislature's commitment to a sound fiscal policy, they raise legitimate questions about whether lawmakers are willing or able to address the serious problems that still face Illinois -- including pension debt soaring into the realm of $150 billion and beyond.

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With all the new money expected to come into Illinois from new taxes and raised taxes, residents have a right to expect their government will behave with frugality -- and will make tough choices today for a brighter future tomorrow. Slipping expensive amenities into a fat building program -- like sneaking $1,600 raises for themselves into a state budget propped up by a host of new taxes -- sends an ugly message.

It unnerves those who might otherwise be disposed to support lawmakers' goals and justifies the complaints of cynics. It is counterproductive, and demeans and diminishes the larger objective.

Hidden niceties and political enticements don't just squander money; they also squander trust, and with a fight looming over a constitutional amendment permitting a graduated income tax, lawmakers who support a change didn't make a very persuasive opening case for themselves.

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