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Put aside distractions, focus on Illinois’ fiscal mess

Updated: November 29, 2012 6:32AM



Presidential debates. Congressional races. Budget battles. Crime sprees. Da Bears. Da Bulls. Jesse Jackson Jr.

That’s more than enough to satiate the hungriest news junkie. But it also means a lot of important political and governmental stories fall below the radar screen. And those stories, taken collectively, remind us the road to reform in Illinois is more challenging than a Chicago side street after a snowstorm.

The biggest story came in a report by a group of respected financial experts, led by former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, calling Illinois “a mess” and rating our financial condition worst in the country.

Too much spending, borrowing and “budget gamesmanship,” they wrote, and not enough revenue, tax reform and strategic planning.

“Illinois’ budget is not fiscally sustainable,“ the report concluded, with one expert adding this chilling prediction: “I think it’s going to reach a point where there’s either social disorder or bankruptcy before people will act.”

The problem, as we see it from our watchdog perch, is that government is set up to serve the politicians first and the public last, so decisions are frequently based on self-interest, not public interest.

And that was graphically illustrated by some of the other recent stories that got too little attention. For instance:

We learned that Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas broke the rules in the 1990s, when she was a county commissioner, by accepting homeowner exemptions on three personal properties, when only one is allowed. She and her husband refunded the undeserved savings of more than $5,000 after the BGA and WBBM-Channel 2 raised the issue.

How widespread is this abuse?

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that a nephew of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios landed a job in Secretary of State Jesse White’s office five weeks after Berrios hired the son of White’s chief of staff.

Both offices deny any tit-for-tat, but this is the latest ethics controversy for Berrios, who was recently fined $10,000 by the county’s Ethics Board for violating a nepotism ban by hiring two relatives.

Are any of these jobs even necessary?

We’re not saying Pappas, Berrios and White are poster children for our government woes. In fact, they’ve all implemented welcome reforms in their offices.

And we’re not condemning all top officials. The new administrations in Chicago, and in Cook and DuPage counties, are taking steps to improve fairness, honesty, accountability, efficiency and transparency.

Even in Springfield, where the biggest financial and policy decisions are made — and government is arguably most dysfunctional — leaders are starting to realize that business as usual is unsustainable.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose three decades of iron-fisted leadership makes him the reform crowd’s No. 1 target, blames the dysfunction on lawmakers “afraid to do the heavy lifting.”

But beyond the blame game is a system in desperate need of cultural and structural changes that begin with an attitude adjustment and a new mind-set.

It’s an extraordinarily difficult task that is absolutely necessary because Illinois, like the Titanic, is not unsinkable. But we have to see the looming iceberg before the captain did in 1912, so we don’t sink a century later.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at ashaw@bettergo.org or (312) 386-9097.



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