Commentary: Illinois legislature fails citizens
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2009 - It's been three decades since citizens throughout Illinois got both angry and even.
The fire point was a 40 percent pay boost for legislators enacted in 1978 just weeks after voters had re-elected most of them and Gov. Jim Thompson, who had pledged to block such a move. In less than six hours, lawmakers approved the increase, a winking Thompson rapidly vetoed it and the General Assembly overrode him before the public knew what was happening.
Enraged and engaged citizens sent teabags - some containing excrement - to the governor and lawmakers. They forced a rollback of the raises. They unseated incumbents. They voted to slash the size of the House through a citizen initiative spearheaded by young populist and future governor Pat Quinn.
The matter at hand is not quite so Machiavellian. It is harder to grasp and less likely to spark instant outrage. But it menaces our state much more than any salary hike, and it reflects a me-first, public-be-damned attitude more prevalent now than back then.
If Illinoisans want our state to become financially fit, we must get exercised.
We should demand accountability for a shamefully irresponsible budget that plunges the Land of Lincoln ever more deeply into a fiscal abyss, callously disregards our neediest and plants fiscal land mines that will explode in the years and decades ahead.
Fearing political backlash, the majority of those we dispatched to Springfield have sacrificed responsible governance on the altar of expediency. They have failed to impose meaningful spending curbs in Medicaid, public pensions and other areas of spiraling costs. They have recoiled from approving tax increases vital to attacking a gargantuan operating deficit and preserving essential services.
Instead, they opted to borrow billions on top of the billions already owed - a maneuver estimated to cost an additional $500 million in interest over the next five years. They chose to make community-based agencies and others that provide mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and other services wait even longer to get paid even less, causing many of them to reluctantly deny or delay assistance to troubled individuals and families.
Cowardice eclipsed courage. Cynicism trumped stewardship.
Insiders wryly suggest this is not a final budget. Gov. Quinn and Senate Democrats are on record in support of tax increases. Several House Democrats will feel freer to get on board if no major challengers to their re-elections surface by Nov. 2, the deadline for candidates to file for the 2010 ballot. Republican lawmakers might join Democrats in approving revenue enhancements after they see the adverse impact of the fiscal train wreck on those they represent - especially if Democrats accept spending reforms. But remedial action later this year or even in 2010 is hardly guaranteed.
Meanwhile, senior citizens wonder whether they can continue receiving services that keep them in their own homes and out of nursing homes. Parents of developmentally disabled Illinoisans fear loss of respite services. At-risk kids have been put at greater peril. All of this anxiety and misery because too many politicians stand for little more than re-election.
The antics of our lawmakers make it more difficult to dispute term limits, but they are no panacea. Check out California, among the first to embrace them.
Other reforms, such as changing the way legislative districts are drawn and holding the primary later in the year, would stimulate more competition for House and Senate seats. Just ask the lawmakers who have steadfastly resisted them.
Still, the ultimate antidote is an enraged and engaged citizenry, as a group of arrogant politicians learned 30 years ago.
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.