Steven P. Millies

Illinois has a budget! Now what?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

I moved away from Illinois in 1995 when the state pension deficit was a trifling $20 billion. Moving back to Illinois in 2017, a $105 billion deficit now confronts me and those of you who never left. Our state’s unmet pension obligations are crippling.

In 2015, Crain’s Chicago Business put it this way: “For more than a quarter-century, governors and state legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, made a series of financially toxic moves.” No kidding.

Now the legislature has overridden Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto to impose a $5 billion personal income tax increase, only a gesture toward solving an enormous problem. I suppose that if anybody should mind all this, I should. I wasn’t here for the party, two decades of low taxes, growth, and good times. All I get is the hangover. But the truth is, I don’t mind. I’d like to explain why.

Postponing pension payments for so long was a small part of a bigger problem. Fiscal recklessness only became possible once the idea took hold that the promises our state made to public workers somehow were less important than other things. Sometimes, our obligations seemed less important than keeping our own taxes low. Mostly we have been led to believe that our prosperity depended on serving only the business community’s needs. Consider a few examples.
In the 1990s, Illinois gave Sears a $240 million tax incentive to remain in Illinois. Since 1994, the Bulls and the Blackhawks have gotten a property tax break at the United Center worth tens of millions of dollars. In 2001, Illinois gave $25-$30 million in tax incentives to lure Boeing to Illinois. Also in 2001, the state subsidized $432 million in Soldier Field renovations. In 2011, Illinois promised Motorola $100 million in tax breaks to stay.

Maybe worst are the giveaways for the White Sox since the taxpayer-owned Guaranteed Rate Field was constructed. They include $7 million in taxpayer dollars to build a restaurant, tens of millions for renovations since the stadium was built and a more-than-generous lease arrangement that has saved the Sox millions.
Why has Illinois given away all this money (and much more) that otherwise might have been spent on pension contributions or vital government services? You already know the predictable answer. Without these employers coming to Illinois or staying here, how will the state pay its bills? Sports franchises bring us tourism — hotel stays, dinners out and sales tax. We have to be the cheapest place to do business, or some other state will beat us to it.

To some degree, that answer is right. The states do compete against each other this way. So Illinois became successful by proving that we were more willing to undercut basic services for citizens and long-term obligations to public servants. But things were not always this way.

Charles Comiskey built his own ballpark in 1910. Benjamin Holt moved Caterpillar to Peoria without tax incentives. McDonald’s has been in the state since its founding, and Ray Kroc took no money from Springfield. The idea that it has to be like this is new. Businesses were not always able to play the states against each other because Americans used to be better at believing we are all in this together. To make a change now, we only have to start thinking differently about politics.

The challenge of thinking differently about politics is not just an Illinois problem. Everything in our national political conversation tells us it is an American problem. But Illinoisans cannot wait for someone else to take the lead. This crisis forces us to re-examine everything.

We need to recover our sense of what we all share because we all live here. The first thing we share is responsibility. We are responsible for providing basic services. We are responsible for the pensions. And, we are responsible for this crisis.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees a republican form of government to every state. In a republic nobody is not involved. That is the definition of a republic. We can be involved by working together, shouldering our share of the burden. Or we can be involved by shirking and kicking the can down the road.
But there is no getting away, and the budget crisis is the evidence of how true that is. Still, this crisis also is our opportunity to come to grips with reality, to wake up from the dream of a free lunch where we owe nothing to anyone.

This is not a bizarre way to look at our politics. Franklin Roosevelt told us that “a government can be no better than the public opinion that sustains it.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself.” When we lose the idea that our free system of government depends on our mutual commitment to each other and the common good, we lose what makes our form of government unusual and special.

The Catholic Church teaches us the same thing. Each of us is called to contribute to the common good, not to live as though we do not care for the needs of society. This is what Pope Francis meant when he called for “a healthy politics” that is not “concerned with immediate results” and “short-term gain.”

We are citizens first, we are private individuals second, and the needs of the most vulnerable or the needs of the whole community always are our first obligations of citizenship. That is as true for the individual taxpayer as it is for the shareholder or the CEO.

Illinois’ image is taking a beating. But we’re not so different from the rest of the nation. Our problems caught up with us sooner. But the same piper is waiting to be paid in other states. That means we have a chance to lead, to be among first to recognize that politics is not a dirty business for corrupt officials. Politics is our bond of mutual trust, our assurance that we are all in this thing together.

I am glad to be home at a time when we have the opportunity to strengthen that bond.


  • state budget