The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Wanted: Fiscally responsible politicians

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston) suggests that a massive, costly, long-awaited and controversial statewide public-works program won't be considered by the legislature until after the fall elections.

The idea that politicians can't settle difficult issues before an election has become so widely accepted that it hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. That's the way it is, we're told. But is that the way it should be?

Think about what this practice says: Elected officials are too frightened of voters to do the right thing. They hope that putting a couple of years between what they do and the next election will help voters forget. Beyond what should be an embarrassing display of cowardice, it also reveals a low regard for public opinion and a lack of faith in the democratic process.

What Illinois legislators are putting off is a huge—maybe $35 billion huge—proposal to fix the state's decaying highways, mass transit and other public assets. Hardly anyone argues whether the fix is needed—witness the pathetic CTA—but no one can seem to agree on how to pay for it. Some suggest the state should sell or rent out some assets, such as the state lottery, but no one wants to say that taxes should be raised.

What voters lose is the opportunity to rapidly respond to the politicians' decisions. Voters have to wait two to four years for their chance to punish or reward. If anything, it should be just the opposite. Actions involving revenues, expenses and the budget should only be allowed, say, three months prior to the next general election. If politicians don't pass a balanced budget by those elections, government should shut down and not reopen until the newly elected politicians enter office and pass a balanced budget.

Draconian and pie in the sky? Yes. But how bad is that compared with Illinois' current state of collapse? As it now stands, lawmakers are stumbling around trying to pass an annual budget by the end of this week. Unfortunately, their failure to do so won't bring on a government shutdown; the only consequence is that a budget passed after month's end would require a supermajority, giving Republicans a stronger voice in the process.

One might think that's a good thing, to rein in the Democrats' propensity for big-money programs. But it's not necessarily so; Republicans have displayed fiscal irresponsibility by proposing an Illinois gas-tax holiday, which could put a $200 million hole in the budget, according to some estimates. A gas-tax holiday is a giveaway, pure and simple, one that doesn't do anything to solve the problem of high fuel costs.

But since Illinois Republicans no longer know what they stand for, I'm not surprised that they're acting more like Democrats than Democrats.

If Republicans wanted to be Republicans, they should take the advice of Citizens Against Government Waste and the Illinois Policy Institute. They note that the problem with the state budget and its ballooning deficits isn't the lack of revenues, as so many assume. In fact, revenues are the highest ever, but expenditures are growing faster. In their "2008 Illinois Piglet Book," the organizations identified $686 million in waste. Here's some of what lawmakers believe we can't do without: pheasant and fur-bearing animal conservation; a culinary arts center; petroleum marketing; displaced homemakers counseling and training; salmon stamp design; Chinese erhu music; Polish folk dance; polar bear photo essays; grants, contracts and administrative expenses associated with the development of the Illinois grape and wine industry.

Yes, I'm cherry-picking the obvious, but you also can question the big items. There is the $12 billion and ever-increasing money going for education, even though, as the "Piglet" points out, student performance remains flat.

"Piglet" is fat with such examples, and you don't have to hunt hard to find your own. Despite the billions spent by the state to protect children, the Tribune last week described the horrendous case of the severely disabled Jaylen Brown, 13, who died of abuse so horrible that it's hard to imagine. Jaylen was in the care of a mother and two state-provided nurses, all charged with felony neglect.

Is it fair to suggest that one botched case demonstrates a systemic breakdown? Probably not. But you sure can add Jaylen to the list of people who weren't served by the state's bloated budget.

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