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Editor's Notebook: Words can inform and inspire but they also can choke off thought

"You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns! You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" William Jennings Bryan 1896 Democratic National Convention

OK, so Gov. Rod Blagojevich never actually uttered the words cross of gold in his faux-populist State of the State/budget address, but he seemed to be straining to channel some of the Salem, Ill.-born Bryan's anti-corporate, pro-labor spirit.

In Bryan's day, the battle was between the industrialists and bankers who were the creditors and the farmers and tradesmen who were the debtors. It was a fight over the gold standard favored by the wealthy class versus an unlimited supply of silver coinage favored by the working class. 

The battle continues today, if we're to believe our governor, between hard-working middle-class taxpayers and wealthy corporate giants that aren't rendering their fair share to the state's coffers. 

"The moral imperative is this," Blagojevich said in his emotion-charged 35-minute speech, "while the middle class pays more and huge corporations just walk, a child pays the price with increasingly crowded classrooms, the family in need of health care pays a price in health care they can't afford, the worker depending on a pension pays a price with a retirement that is no longer secure."

Really? That's why our politicians have shorted public employee pension systems and underfunded schools for the past three decades? That's why many Illinoisans can't afford decent health care? That's why state finances are on the brink of collapse? Oh, I forgot, the governor didn't have much to say about the state's long-term budget gap.

He did, however, pronounce a gonzo budget plan to overhaul Illinois' revenue structure, borrow the state's way out of debt and sell off some of the family silver. As is his way, he apparently consulted ahead with few beyond his own reflection in the mirror.

 Lawmakers were left speechless, if the after-game on public radio was any indication. Here in the office, I thumbed through my Webster's Ninth Collegiate for the definition of demagogue. It can mean a leader who champions the cause of the common people — hence Bryan's nickname, "the Commoner." 

Or, in definition No. 2, "a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power." 

Here's the thing. Words can be used to inform and inspire. When they rely on emotion alone, though, they can choke off thought. And there are some questions we should be asking ourselves, beginning with how many of the governor's claims are true. 

At the least, we know our problems, and the possible solutions, are more complicated than he makes them out to be.

Here are others to consider in the coming weeks. What, really, is the long-term prognosis for Illinois' financial health? How might the governor's plan help or hurt? What are our spending priorities — for today and tomorrow? Is the state's revenue structure effective? Is it fair? If business isn't paying its fair share, what's the best way to ensure that it does? Are low-income Illinoisans paying a heavier price? If so, how can we fix that?

This month, we invited two fiscal experts to help us begin to think these things through. Charlie Wheeler, who as a journalist covered state budget-making for nearly 40 years, takes the long view in our cover story and addresses the governor's plan in his column, "Ends and Means." Tom Johnson, a state and local tax policy analyst, talks with us about Illinois' revenue structure. 

We think it makes for good reading and better thinking. 


Want to know more? 

A budget on the brink 

Illinois Issues will join several organizations on April 16 in co-sponsoring a day-long conference on the state's fiscal condition. It will be held at the Hilton Hotel in Springfield from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. A buffet lunch will be provided, but pre-registration is required by April 11. Call 618-536-7751. (See page 33 in this issue for more details.)

The conference participants represent diverse perspectives on fiscal management. 

R. Eden Martin, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, will make a presentation in the morning. The Civic Committee, which is comprised of some 80 corporate CEOs, issued a study in December warning that the state faces "financial implosion." The committee prescribed cuts in spending and an increase in the income tax. 

Consecutive panels that afternoon will discuss state spending and Illinois' revenue structure, matters that are under discussion in this legislative session. 

Illinois Issues columnist Charles N. Wheeler III will moderate the panel on spending. He will be joined by Linda Renee Baker, a professor in the Paul Simon Policy Institute who formerly headed the Illinois Department of Human Services; Mary Ellen Guest, the campaign manager of A+ Illinois, an education advocacy group; Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable and a former state lawmaker; and Hank Scheff, director of research and employee benefits for AFSCME Council 31, which represents most unionized state employees. 

   The panel on the state's revenue structure will be moderated by Beverly Bunch, an associate professor with the Institute for Legal, Legislative and Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She will be joined by Greg Baise, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association; J. Thomas Johnson, president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois and a former director of the Illinois Department of Revenue; Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability; and Joan Parker, director of government relations for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and formerly of the Taxpayers' Federation.

Besides Illinois Issues and the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield, the conference will be co-sponsored by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. 

Peggy Boyer Long

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, April 2007

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