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The budget crisis few want to solve
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Published: 6/27/2009 11:18 PM

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Illinois begins a new budget year Wednesday, and it appears one thing will be missing: A new budget. How the budget debate will be resolved, no one knows. When it will be resolved, well, no one quite knows that either.

Legislators head back to Springfield Monday with the clock ticking but no apparent sense of urgency. Frankly, if most legislators had their way, they'd hand the governor a bloated budget and force him to go through it line-by-line and make the cuts needed to make it work. Let him take the heat; that's what most of them would do.

It's abdication of responsibility, plain and simple, an unwillingness to make the tough and unpopular calls.

Unfortunately, years of putting off the state's problems are a big reason Illinois faces an overwhelming and almost insurmountable budget challenge now. And there's plenty of blame to spread all around. Almost everyone in Springfield, to one degree or another, at one time or another, has buried their head in the sand and hoped the problems would somehow go away.

Instead, as the economy has tanked, they've gotten worse. And that's created the horrible contradiction that at exactly the time taxpayers can least afford to take on a greater burden, many including Gov. Pat Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton are saying the only way out is with a huge increase in taxes.

While we disagree with Gov. Quinn (at least on the specifics), we give him his due: He is the guy in the state Capitol who probably is at least fault for the mess we're in, and he's one of the few who is not ducking for cover. Raising taxes shortly before his first run for governor seems almost like political suicide, but he has the resolve to do that. Agree or disagree (and we largely disagree), at least we have to admire his courage.

The reality is, the state's financial problems run so deep that they cannot be fixed with spending cuts alone. By one estimate, the entire state work force could be laid off and that still wouldn't come close to erasing the $24 billion budget deficit.

But as we have said repeatedly, cuts have to come first. As we said a little over a week ago, we know we can't slash our way out of this deficit. But we expect shared sacrifice in tough times before we'll support sharing more tax money with government.

That means Quinn must develop a plan for forced furloughs for state workers. Numerous states are doing this; scores of private businesses are. If the unions won't agree, then Quinn must send them the required 30-day notices that layoffs will take place.

Shared sacrifice. The huge shortfalls in the pension programs are not the fault of public employees. But they're not the fault of the taxpayers either. If taxpayers are going to be expected to help fill the gap, then state employees should help as well. An increase in current employee contributions must be part of any solution. And a shift to a defined-contribution program must be strongly examined for future employees.

It is time that everyone starts taking responsibility for solving Illinois' financial crisis.