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Illinois leaders, it's time to step up
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 9/30/2009 12:04 AM

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Who would disagree with this statement from AFSCME negotiator Henry L. Bayer?:

"The real root of this issue is the state budget crisis. The governor and every state lawmaker should commit to passing comprehensive tax reform that raises adequate revenue to fund essential services and preserve the jobs of those who provide them."

The problem comes in defining terms.

For, to Bayer, "essential services" means any and all union jobs, and "tax reform" means "tax increase." Bayer is really saying Illinois' political leaders need to raise taxes to save all union jobs.

It is really the exact opposite of the correct approach to the state's budget crisis. Unfortunately, Bayer's pressure - in this case coming via a lawsuit that, at least temporarily, blocked Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to make $100 million in cuts in the prison system - represents the kind of piecemeal pressure-point politicking that state leaders are comfortable falling back on in addressing a problem that gets worse literally every day.

The players are slightly different, but the approach was all but identical in a rally Tuesday by the "Responsible Budget Coalition" that plans "to build public support across Illinois for comprehensive tax reform that will raise revenue to restore public services and save jobs."

Sound familiar? AFSCME Council 31, which Bayer heads, is among the 90 special interest groups that make up the coalition. Others include Arts Alliance Illinois, Chicago Jobs Council, Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans, Protestants for the Common Good, the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, the Legislative Education Network of DuPage and many more. All, no doubt, serve a positive societal function. Many provide critical services. But some, we're willing to venture, bring little more than self-interest to the debate.

The question is who is going to sort through the list and make the disciplined, painful decisions on which priorities the state can afford?

So far, no one is stepping up to the plate.

While Senate President John Cullerton and state school board chief Jesse Ruiz were exhorting the passions of the Responsible Budget Coalition Tuesday, Gov. Quinn spent time alongside college presidents urging lawmakers to restore a student-aid program. The cause, as we've written, is a just one, but Quinn's participation in a rally targeting lawmakers on matters he set in motion, demonstrates a lack of true leadership.

Why, we ask again, are leaders like Quinn and Cullerton - to mention only two - not laying out a realistic definition of what is an "essential" state service? Why are they not presenting comprehensive plans that go beyond rash guesswork on both the revenue and spending sides of the equation? Why are they not looking for examples of outrageous spending - like the $40 million allocated to Chicago State University that the college didn't know about - and eradicating them?

The hard fact is that the state's special interests do not hold the answer to our budget woes. On that point, we must count on our political leaders to define terms that are clear and unequivocal. And they must realize that until they provide those, no other response, whether for cuts or for tax increases, will be acceptable.