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Illinois Issues
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Ends and Means: It's the New Year and one can always hope

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Among the time-honored traditions of the holiday season, perhaps none is as hopeful and yet as depressing as the practice of making New Year’s resolutions.

Hopeful because the turn of the calendar page to a new year seems to wipe the slate clean, affording a chance to start afresh in the struggle to surmount one’s perceived shortcomings. So folks resolve to lose 15 pounds or to quit smoking or to clean up that messy desk. Depressing because, before the calendar page turns again, many of us will be backsliding: super-sizing the fries or bumming cigarettes from pals or adding new stacks of paper to the archival mounds.

One can resolve the apparent paradox, however, and relish the satisfaction of good intentions, yet avoid the guilt of failed promises. The secret is to make the resolutions for someone else, a popular pastime for columnists and editorial writers year-round.

So, as Illinois Issues embarks upon its 30th year — and this column its 22nd — your author offers the following handful of resolutions for our statewide leaders, especially Gov. Rod Blagojevich and members of the incoming 94th General Assembly. Please resolve to:

• Address forthrightly the state’s chronic budget crisis. For the past four years, including FY 2005, the state has been running a budgetary deficit. The money in the state’s main checkbook account on June 30 has not been enough to cover leftover bills from the just-ended fiscal year. While the administration has pared the deficit from $1.2 billion in FY02 to a projected $566 million in FY05, another shortfall looms for the spending plan the governor and lawmakers will put together next spring. The Economic and Fiscal Commission estimates revenue growth for FY 2006 at $325 million. That’s little more than half what’s needed to cover a statutorily mandated $600 million hike in pension contributions, not to mention continued increases in health care costs for state workers and Medicaid clients or inflationary growth in other programs.

In the two budgets he’s authored, Blagojevich has relied on the fiscal equivalent of sleight of hand to survive, but the rabbits now are all but gone from the hat. And what’s perhaps the last major legerdemain left — expanding gaming in Illinois — strikes many lawmakers and citizens alike as too much black magic for their tastes.

A reasonable alternative would be to revamp the state’s outdated revenue structure so that income more closely matches spending commitments and program needs by expanding the sales tax base to include some services and by increasing the income tax rate — approaches the governor so far has deemed taboo.

• Reform a system of financing public schools that has earned the state failing grades for fairness — for four years in a row. Of the state’s nearly 400 elementary districts, for example, about 13 percent spend more than $10,000 per pupil, while roughly 9 percent spend less than $6,000 for each student. The equity gap stems from the state’s heavy reliance on local real estate taxes; some high-spending school districts have property tax bases 10 times greater than their lower-spending counterparts.

Fixing the problem is not rocket science; decades of studies have concluded the state needs to bear a greater share of the school funding burden than its current 36 percent. The best way to achieve that is to replace local property tax dollars with state income or sales tax dollars, with additional funds going to poorer school districts. What’s been missing, though, has been the political will to effect the swap.

• Provide access to adequate and affordable health care for all Illinoisans. More than 1.8 million Illinoisans had no health insurance coverage during 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau reported, but almost twice that many — almost one in three residents under age 65 — went without coverage for all or part of the previous two years, according to a study by Families USA, a consumer advocacy group.

To his credit, the governor has expanded substantially health care coverage for low-income families and the working poor the last two years, chiefly by hiking the income ceiling for Medicaid eligibility. But broader coverage also has boosted Medicaid costs in a time of financial stress.

Moreover, state coverage is of minimal value to folks living in parts of the state where no doctors are available to treat their conditions, as is the case in much of rural Illinois, particularly the southern third of the state where specialists are leaving because of high medical malpractice insurance premiums.

Improving access likely will require changes in the rules on personal injury lawsuits and in the regulation of insurance companies’ underwriting practices, reforms that will require some compromise from two of the state’s most powerful special interest groups, trial lawyers and insurers.

• Alleviate the state’s serious shortfall in affordable housing. Lawmakers made a good start on the supply side last year by ordering a statewide survey to identify communities lacking affordable housing and requiring them to develop remedial plans.

Now awaiting final Senate action is a House-approved measure that would help on the demand side by providing rental assistance to low-income families through an $11 surcharge on real estate documents filed with county recorders. Sending it to Blagojevich for his signature would be a nice way to bring the curtain down on the 93rd General Assembly.

• Rewrite the state’s criminal code and sentencing laws to place greater emphasis on alternatives to prison time and enhanced rehabilitation programs, thus reducing prison crowding and the recidivism rate that figures so prominently in the once-again-growing inmate population. Being smarter on crime makes good budget sense, too, when taxpayers foot a $20,000-plus-a-year bill for every adult inmate.

An admittedly ambitious list of resolutions, so one should not be surprised if they are not met. Indeed, most of them echo sentiments often expressed in this space over the course of the past two decades. Still, one can always hope — after all, it is a New Year.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, January 2005

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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