NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links


Budget opens with long foul



Like a cleanup hitter going after a hanging curveball, Gov. James R. Thompson's political rivals swung from the heels at his proposed state budget for fiscal year 1990. Their target was the Republican governor's announcement of almost $900 million in general funds program growth.

"I think that the governor's speech today clearly vindicates my position over the last two years that Illinois does not need a $1 billion tax increase," declared House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago), Thompson's chief nemesis on the tax issue. "The state can move ahead without a $1 billion tax increase."

"What we have said has come true," added Comptroller Roland W. Burris, a Democrat who would like Thompson's job. "We don't need an income tax increase. What we've done is work our way out of the crisis because we had a responsible General Assembly who just said, 'No, we're not going to raise taxes, we're going to live within our means.'"

But what might look like a grand slam in hardball politics for the I-told-you-so Democrats is in reality only a long foul. Madigan, Burris and the rest of the Just Say No squad miss the mark in at least two respects. Most obvious is the fact that whatever spending level is approved for the coming fiscal year can have no impact on the needs that should have been met and weren't in the last two years. Had Thompson's call for an income tax hike been heeded in 1987, it's only fair to ask whether:

  • one out of every five Illinois school districts would be on the state Board of Education's financial watch list.
  • 14 hospitals serving overwhelmingly poor populations would have gone belly up.
  • more than 200,000 preschoolers would have lost the chance for the early childhood help without which their chances to succeed in school and in life have been significantly diminished.

But the naysayers chose to ignore the governor. So those lost opportunities are now gone forever, and nothing the current legislature does can change that sad fact.

Moreover, even the $900 million in program growth Thompson laid out for fiscal 1990 does not cover what many, including the speaker, concede are reasonable requests for education and human services. For example, the governor's proposal would increase spending for elementary and secondary education by about $215 million, only a little more than half of what school officials requested. While better than the zero increase Thompson offered a year ago, the funding level still short-changes what Thompson acknowledged are "right and reasonable" requests from educators.

Outgoing state schools Supt. Ted Sanders bluntly labeled the school allotment "a tourniquet which eases the flow of red ink but fails to address the funding problems facing elementary and secondary education." And some 100,000 at-risk youngsters will remain unserved.

The governor's budget does not include a cost-of-living increase for welfare recipients, whose monthly grants have been frozen since January 1985, while the cost of living in the Chicago area has risen by more than 15 percent.

Nor has Thompson penciled in any extra money for hospitals that serve large numbers of poor people, a $45 million item strongly supported by Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park). "I'm a little surprised the governor has thrown in the towel this early and said this is the bottom line within which we're going to live," said Rock, who has been Thompson's staunchest ally on the tax issue among the four leaders. "We could do more, we can do more and we perhaps should do more," Rock added. "But if this is what the governor has decided, we'll live with that."

While Thompson insists that only an income tax increase can remedy the acknowledged shortcomings of his proposed budget, a number of Democrats, Madigan included, profess to believe enough money can be found simply by reshuffling the

April 1989 | Illinois Issues | 4

lines "I think that there will be a very strong effort by Democrats in the legislature to reduce the fat in the agencies and to move that money into education and other social services." said Madigan, pointing to the governor's plans to add almost 1,800 new jobs. Some Senate Democrats, meanwhile, say they plan to give education half of next years new money — or about $100 million more than Thompson proposed — by cutting back elsewhere.

That kind of rhetoric may sound good in a 15-second sound bite on the evening news, but anybody who actually believes it may be in for a rude awakening. Consider jobs. True, Thompson wants to add almost 1,800 more state workers. Almost half of them, however, would go on the payrolls at Corrections to staff new prison beds being opened up and at the State Police as part of the escalating war on drugs Thompson announced in his State of the State address. Another fifth of them would be child abuse investigators, welfare case-workers and needed support staff in the Children and Family Services and Public Aid departments. Suddenly, those new hires aren't such an easy target in the hunt for another $100 million for schools.

So why not take the money out of other agency budgets? After all, there should be plenty of room when spending is going up by some $900 million.

Again, it's easier said than done. The rub lies in the fact the state already spends most of its general fund dollars for the very programs Thompson's critics say they want to help. The governor's allocation of the new dollars begins with $215 million for local schools and $130 million for higher education, leaving about $555 million for other program growth. Do you cut into the $90 million or so earmarked to increase rates for health care providers? Or the $55 million to provide, as federal law requires, more appropriate care for mentally ill and developmentally disabled persons now in nursing homes? Do you cut back on prison guards, or new state police cars, or negotiated pay raises and health insurance costs for state workers?

When Thompson's critics attempt to address such questions honestly and forthrightly, they may find themselves fanning on that hanging curveball.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.

April 1989 | Illinois Issues | 5

Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library