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Commentary: Forget pay to play, Illinois legislature should pay for what it passes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2009 - John Bradley, D-Marion, who amassed considerable political capital by fighting utilities and methamphetamine, is investing a chunk in a markedly less endearing effort.

He may hear fewer hurrahs and more harrumphs. But the four-term House member from southern Illinois is displaying uncommon courage and leadership by sponsoring a gasoline tax increase to stimulate Illinois' economy in the short term and enhance its competitiveness in the decades ahead.

Nearly all of his legislative colleagues tout the need to bolster decaying bridges, upgrade roads and build arteries to potential centers of commerce and industry. However, he predictably stands almost alone at this moment in advocating a boost to 27 cents from 19 a gallon in the motor fuel tax - a sturdy, user-based funding source in lieu of more gambling and gimmicks.

"Nobody wants to pay additional taxes. Nobody wants to propose them. But you can't get something without paying for it," Bradley says.

This is a conversion of sorts for the 37-year-old lawmaker - a transformation we must see in others, including the new governor, for Illinois to regain fiscal stability and secure its future.

Until recently, Bradley fired more bullets than he bit. He warred against Ameren over shocking electric rate increases. He shepherded Attorney General Lisa Madigan's legislation targeting meth makers, dealers and users. He played an important role in fashioning an antidote to medical malpractice insurance rates that threatened the availability of health care providers.

Bradley has adopted his constituents' gripes as his own, embracing the populism of thwarting pay raises for legislators and recalling public officials. Like most lawmakers, he has pandered by championing additional funding for education and other worthy causes while opposing tax increases to support it.

The personally engaging Democrat from Marion has won plaudits as a capable, hardworking legislator. Last fall, he was re-elected with about 80 percent of the vote despite sniping from Rod Blagojevich and some other fellow Democrats who labeled him a puppet of House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.

All of this without venturing far from his political comfort zone.

Several months ago, Bradley helped block Blagojevich's massive capital improvements program, which would have been bankrolled by adding and expanding casinos and leasing the lottery. Today, he is testing his mettle and his constituents by supporting a tax hike as a component of responsibly funding public works projects overseen by a chief executive he trusts.

Will others, principally Gov. Patrick Quinn, leave their comfort zones? After all, Quinn has been the state's premier populist for decades, wooing Illinoisans by taking on utilities and salary increases for public officials while Bradley was still in grade school.

Illinois' 41st governor has shown he can rally citizens. But will he risk riling them?

The governor and lawmakers must raise more revenues than an 8-cent-per-gallon increase would produce if they want to fund a comprehensive transportation initiative and other public works projects they claim to support. Above all, they need to make difficult decisions on spending and taxes to close a deficit that has skyrocketed into a budgetary stratosphere.

It will take extraordinary spunk and salesmanship. But what are the alternatives? The same platitudes, placebos and fiscally feckless policies that helped produce an epic budget crisis and inadequately invested in the human and physical infrastructure vital to succeeding in the global marketplace? Even in these tough times, we cannot neglect our children and grandchildren.

"I don't want to leave my children in the same mess that I'm dealing with," says Bradley, the father of two young boys and hopefully one of several statesmen in the making.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.