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Commentary: Too many Illinois lawmakers stand for nothing but re-election

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2009 - President Barack Obama received unsolicited advice the other day from his former colleagues. By a voice vote, the Illinois Senate approved a resolution opposing the president's escalation of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and urging him to bring our soldiers home.

Because he is a slightly busy fellow, the president apparently skipped the opportunity to reciprocate and offer his own counsel, something like, "You folks ought to be more concerned about the kind of state that awaits our deployed men and women after they have put their lives on the line for their country and less riveted on protecting your rear ends."

We do not elect state legislators, pay them upwards of $67,800 annually and allow them generous perks so they can dabble in foreign policy and stand for nothing but re-election.

We send them to Springfield to assure all kids in Illinois have a shot at a decent education, violent criminals are put and kept behind bars, the truly needy receive essential services, our great natural resources are conserved and preserved, our business climate promotes growth, our tax dollars are spent effectively and the state budget is balanced without hocus-pocus.

But too many have failed us in recent years, as our humongous deficit spotlights all too clearly. To put Illinois back on track, legislators must significantly restrain spending and substantially raise taxes, both of which could offend potent backers. Yet, if they do not act responsibly in the days ahead, most of them will deserve our censure.

Lawmakers from both political parties have become accustomed to blaming their leaders for impeding progress, but the troops are gutless, not guiltless.

They elect their chiefs and influence them. Truth be told, they often choose to let their leaders take the heat for blocking politically difficult votes, giving them an alibi that works only when constituents fall for it.

Meanwhile, Republicans particularly are suppressing any temptation to solve problems in hopes they can convince voters in 2010 that the majority Democrats and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich created the mess and offered noxious remedies.

Although bipartisan movement last week on a long-needed capital construction program merits applause, the operating deficit is even more urgent. It approaches 40 percent of what is allocated annually for basic services. At the same time, tens of thousands of elementary and high school students suffer from inadequate funding, and graduates are finding higher education increasingly unaffordable.

Recession-ravaged individuals and families are trying to access dwindling resources. The chasm between spending and revenues threatens to compromise public safety, our quality of life, our ability to field the skilled workforce essential to economic competitiveness and our capability to respond humanely to the special needs of citizens with significant disabilities.

Most of those in the executive and legislative branches have chosen the path of least political resistance while zealously barricading incursions into their incumbency. They have supported additional spending without revenue enhancements or offsetting cuts. Meanwhile, they have balked at reforms, such as moving the primary to a later date, that arouse the slightest scent of danger to their political viability.

By continuing to do so, they will dishearten those of us who respect the legislative process and have seen it respond forthrightly to formidable challenges. They also will make it more difficult to argue against term limits, even though such artificial restrictions absolve voters of their responsibilities and produce other unintended, adverse consequences.

Statesmanship still could - and should - trump politics for the good of the state and those Illinoisans who are showing in Afghanistan how to provide truly courageous public service.

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.