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Gov. Hick's budget buffaloes city slickers


Charles N. Wheeler III

Jim Edgar's home away from the Executive Mansion is a log cabin, and he has been disparaged as "Gov. Hick" by well-known Chicago columnist Mike Royko. But as the spring session begins in earnest, it's the governor from Charleston who has big city Democrats looking frantically under the walnut shells, hoping to find that elusive pea.

Nowhere is the Democrats' consternation more obvious than on the $28.6 billion budget Edgar proposed for the fiscal year which starts July 1. The spending plan provides deep cuts in social programs dear to Democratic hearts, purloins some $237 million from Chicago and other municipalities, and proposes higher sin taxes some say fall heaviest on the Democrats' traditional blue-collar constituency.

Along the way, the governor discarded his no-higher-taxes campaign pledge and abrogated budget commitments that Democratic leaders thought were binding at the time they were hammered out last July. "In a 48-minute speech he literally unraveled... an agreement that we had reached over 18 long days last July," griped Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park). "He broke his word," groused House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago). The Democrats' barbs were aimed at the governor's decision to eliminate entirely welfare for more than 40,000 single adults and to claim for state use the income tax surcharge slice promised municipalities.

Despite the purported perfidy, however, neither Rock nor Madigan offered ready alternatives to Edgar's plan. And unlike last year, when the top Democrats boldly predicted the rookie governor would not recognize his budget proposal once they had finished with it, Rock glumly conceded this year, "We are going to wind up taking pretty much of his budget as is."

The predicament facing the Democrats stems from a simple fact: In his budget message, Edgar neatly and deftly boxed them in, giving them few palatable alternatives.

Want to continue the $154-a-month transitional assistance grants? Fine, but you're helping able-bodied, employable adults read goldbricks at the expense of the truly needy, like abused children.

Don't like tripling the liquor tax? OK, but you're putting drunkards and saloonkeepers before school kids.

Think cities and counties should continue to get the surcharge share they were pledged last year? All right, but the windfall you're giving wealthy suburbs means fewer dollars for the mentally ill.

And if you're bold enough to believe that worthwhile programs on Edgar's chopping block can be spared without gutting other, equally meritorious ones, then you're talking the dreaded T-word, and that sort of language is anathema in an election year in which 135 of 177 lawmakers are running in new districts.

Facing such politically powerful imagery, is it any wonder Democrats are on the defensive?

Moreover, last year Democratic leaders and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley shared a common budget agenda: continue the local government surcharge and stave off cuts in welfare and human services that might place added financial pressure on the city. While these remain concerns for Daley this spring, they seem dwarfed by two other blockbuster items on the mayor's wish list, the new Lake Calumet airport and casino gambling.

The governor already has endorsed the mayor's dream of a third airport on the city's southeast side, but suburban Republican legislators are determined to win major concessions from Chicago on noise abatement at O'Hare International Airport and on property tax caps in Cook County before providing the votes to pass the legislation needed to get the airport off the ground.

Edgar, meanwhile, has been decidedly cool to the $2 billion casino and entertainment complex developers have proposed for downtown Chicago, suggesting the pro-

6/May 1992/Illinois Issues

ject's negative points appear to outweigh whatever benefits it might bring. And while the governor scoffed at speculation the casinos could wind up enmeshed with his budget in a session-ending deal, veteran legislative watchers know what seems absurd in April often becomes apparent in June. Indeed, when Edgar unveiled his budget plan, Daley dispatched his budget chief to bemoan its shortcomings, including the loss of an estimated $58 million in surcharge money for the city, while keeping a low profile himself. So a prudent Democrat might not wish to crawl too far out on a budget limb, lest he discover the governor and the mayor at either end of a whipsaw, cutting it off behind him.

Yet Edgar's budget proposal is not without serious flaws. Most apparent, of course, was the governor's straight-faced insistence that liquor and tobacco taxes are really only user fees, and thus exempt from his campaign promise to hold the line on taxes. It was a foolish pledge, of course, inspired by what at the time was probably seen as political necessity, and Edgar would have been better served to admit so candidly, rather than try to cover himself with the user-fee fig leaf.

The budget's shortcomings go beyond mere twisted semantics, however. Consider, for example, Edgar's assertion that work is available for those he wishes to purge from the welfare rolls. If jobs are so plentiful, why did Illinois post a 7.8 percent unemployment rate in March, sixth highest among major industrial states?

Or consider his decision to freeze at current levels enrollment in home service programs that help persons with disabilities remain independent. If prevention is an Edgar watchword, should access be curtailed to a program intended to avoid unnecessary institutionalization at half the cost?

Or consider his reliance on $1.8 billion from a new provider tax to cover almost 40 percent of the Medicaid budget. Will hospitals and nursing homes that serve few poor people be willing to share their revenues with those caring for large numbers of the needy, as new federal rules require?

Despite such question marks, however, for now it sure seems like Gov. Hick has the city slickers buffaloed.

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

May 1992/Illinois lssues/7

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