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Shaw: The letters M and B: Illinois’ finances a Messy Business

Andy Shaw is president chief executive officer Better Government Association.

Andy Shaw is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association.

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Updated: January 13, 2013 11:11AM



If Big Bird and “Sesame Street” are important enough for a presidential debate, their muse is certainly worth poaching for today’s column, which is being brought to you initially by the letters M and B.

First the M. As in Mike Madigan. Map. Money. Message. Majority. And, yes, Mess.

House Speaker Madigan (D-Chicago) picked up seven new seats on Election Day and begins the next session of the General Assembly in January with a veto-proof Majority.

How did he do it? By drawing a legislative Map with new districts that favored his Democratic candidates, raising enough Money to gain an edge in the contested races and crafting strong enough Messages to one-up the opposing candidates.

But those victories also mean that Madigan’s Majority, and Senate President John Cullerton’s equally powerful bloc, now own the last M — the Mess in Springfield — which is brought to you by the letter B, as in Busted Budget. Bales of Bills. And Bureaucratic Bloat.

Remember that Madigan, Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Gov. Pat Quinn raised the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent two years ago. It was supposed to start paying the overdue bills, balancing the budget and drawing down the state’s huge pension debt.

But the extra billions in tax revenue has been little more than a bandage on a gaping wound, and the situation today is even worse.

The budget is too busted to keep up with a burgeoning bale of unpaid bills that now tops $8 billion.

And the bureaucratic bloat? Despite downsizing pledges and efficiency studies, lawmakers haven’t done anything about the state’s 7,000-plus units of government — easily the most of any state in the country and all of them separate taxing bodies — or the more than 300 state boards and commissions or the nearly 300 one-school school districts.

Duplication plus replication equals abomination. That’s Sloth 101 in the School of Springfield Slackers — brought to you by the letter S.

As for the deepening pension debacle? The state’s five major public employee retirement funds are underfunded by roughly $95 billion, and that number goes up every day that a pension reform plan is delayed.

Put it all together and you have the worst fiscal mess of any state, according to a recent 50-state report by a team of distinguished financial experts.

But the Land of Lincoln is top tier in one way — our lawmakers are among the best compensated in the country. The average House salary is $76,296 and senators average $79,652. Their health and pension benefits are generous, the jobs part-time.

So let’s get this straight. Madigan and Cullerton, the legislative leaders who’ve presided for years over a deepening crisis and raised our taxes without solving the problems, get rewarded with generous pay and bennies.

And we send them back to Springfield with even more power.

Are Illinois voters crazy, misinformed, easily manipulated or apathetic or all of the above?

Perhaps, but this is the holiday season, so let’s try not to despair. And since January begins a new year and a new General Assembly, let’s summon up a smidgen of optimism.

In deference to Big Bird, a truly benign character, this final sentence is brought to you by the letter H. For Hope.

Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.



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