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Editorial: Legislators must reform Medicaid, pensions, pass a budget

Updated: July 3, 2012 10:30AM

With less than one week left in the state’s spring legislative session, just three things matter:

Medicaid reform, pension reform and passing a budget.

Nothing else — including passing a gambling bill in the Senate — makes the list.

That’s how absolutely vital these three tasks are to fragile Illinois.

What state legislators do — or don’t do — this week will shape the future of Illinois for generations to come. The state faces an unfunded pension liability of $83 billion and about $8.5 billion in unpaid bills, giving legislators no choice but to cut two of the state’s biggest-ticket items: public employee pensions and Medicaid.

That is hard and painful work that most of us would prefer not to do. Hence, the short and tightly focused to-do list.

Other bills may be worthy, including a gambling bill that passed the House last week. But now is not the time for legislators to take their eyes off the prize, even for a revenue-generating bill like the gambling package.

Illinois could use the revenue; that goes without saying. But gambling dollars won’t even begin to dig Illinois out of its fiscal hole. We can’t risk letting even one legislator perpetuate that myth this week. Supporters of the gambling bill argue that the issues are separate — that legislators can cut spending and raise revenue at the same time.

They point to progress made last week in pulling together a bill to cut pension benefits and to the historic votes to cut Medicaid spending and to raise the cigarette tax to support Medicaid. They also say the gambling bill likely won’t be voted on in the Senate until the end of the week.

Point taken. (And a big pat on the back to the 60 state representatives who courageously voted on Friday to increase the cigarette tax).

But the last few days of a legislative session are the most critical, the time when deals come together — or, more often than not, fall apart. What if the allure of gambling money convinces a handful of legislators that true pension reform isn’t needed? What if negotiations on the gambling bill distract key legislators from the ugly and difficult work of righting Illinois’ finances?

Those are not risks Illinois can afford to take.

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