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Media Tue Jul 28 2009

The Tribune's Brass, Bawls

Tribune statehouse reporter Ray Long had a commendable piece in the Sunday Trib about how state cuts will affect the state's most vulnerable residents. To wit:

Illinois might have a working budget in place, but there is a broader story behind the numbers: Real people are hurting.

If they have not lost care, they worry the thin reed of stability provided by non-profit, community-based organizations will disappear without state support. Cuts at social service agencies are tearing holes into safety nets for the state's most vulnerable residents.

People who need medication are not getting it. Single parents are thinking about quitting jobs, unsure whether they can count on state assistance for day-care costs. Families that depend on counseling for mental health, substance abuse and other social ills are finding, at least in some places, they are out of luck.


Quinn has pushed for a 50 percent income-tax increase he said would better fund social services, but lawmakers have not agreed with him. Some opponents say the state should tighten its overall spending, and many predict a taxpayer backlash in the 2010 elections. Lawmakers are expected to consider a tax increase later this year, after they know whether they will face primary opponents in February.

Long's story highlights the fact that a government's budget is not the caricature of waste and hilarious programs that conservatives have fabricated. It is collective spending determined by the public. Yes, much waste and abuse is in there, too. But in highlighting that waste and abuse disproportionately, the right has made it all too easy to talk about "cutting spending" while disconnecting that from the human cost.

Kudos to the Trib for running a story proving that they know exactly what a shortfall of revenue leads to. Where were their editorials insisting on raising revenues to make sure they wouldn't have to run these human interest stories? Why wasn't the Tribune supporting an alternative, like Sen. James Meeks HB 174, which would have raised revenues to pay for these things (not that Meeks' plan is a cure-all)? Now that there's a budget deal and lawmakers have refused to face economic reality, the Tribune bawls for the people negatively impacted by the failure to raise a commonsense level of revenue?

Here's the Trib editorial board, July 8th:

Last week we called the three Dems profiles in failure for their inability to settle their differences and craft a budget. Instead, the people of Illinois are watching business as usual, replete with scare tactics about social services and threats to resolve years of overspending by gouging taxpayers when they're down.

Lawmakers return to Springfield next week. We'd like to predict that the Democrats who own the town will pass spending reforms, real ethics reforms -- and finally adopt a budget. But how could we?

To be fair, earlier in that editorial, they do say this:

This would be a crashing bore if so much wasn't at stake for providers of health care and other services -- and for the vulnerable citizens who rely on them. Those folks are battlefield hostages, doomed to watch helplessly as the pols wiggle for advantage.

But how do they resolve the fact that they are decrying "scare tactics" about social services on the one hand, and on the other but equating raising revenue with "gouging taxpayers"?

Then on July 17th, they violated what Adam Doster of Progress Illinois has dubbed the Civic Fed Rule*:

Did you see what happened in Springfield this week? The same legislators who want you to think they passed real ethics reforms have failed you anew, this time in their stewardship of state finances.

They've passed a new budget that dodges crucial and maddeningly overdue spending reforms. They've put off paying past-due bills, further enshrining the State of Illinois as a deadbeat. And they've borrowed taxpayers into near-oblivion.

"Crucial and maddeningly overdue spending reforms" like what? What are the spending reforms specifically? Does that just mean "less spending"? Does it mean streamlining the bureaucracy--a commonsense goal that would not solve the current fiscal crisis even done perfectly? Is there enough savings from waste in the Illinois budget to make up for constant, enormous shortfalls in revenue? Or does the Tribune brass think there is no symmetry between constantly attacking government spending, and printing stories exposing how a lack of revenue will harm Illinois' most hard working--such as the "single parents" who are considering "quitting jobs"?

There is an assumption here on my part: that raising more revenue, particularly through the income tax, is a necessary if not sufficient condition for solving Illinois' budget and debt problems. I do not think this assumption is too bold. To say that Illinois should only spend at the current level of revenue (without borrowing) is to say that an enormous number of programs--some dubious, but most reasonable--would have to be limited or restricted to tiny numbers that would exclude large numbers of people once considered "vulnerable" (since they at one point met eligibility requirements). If the paper's position is that a large plurality or majority of state government programs are purely "wasteful" and have no direct or indirect benefit to Illinois residents, then their underlying assumption is fairly bold and should be defended.

I'm sure that quite a bit of state spending is wasteful, that it goes to programs that have little to no general benefit and that pinstripe patronage costs taxpayers large sums of cash in lost efficiency. What I don't know, however, is that even was this spending eliminated and efficiency vastly improved, we would be able to provide the baseline level of services the residents of Illinois both expect and demand through their elected representatives. Even were we to meet our current appropriations without borrowing, schools would still be poorly funded, public transportation would need overhaul and improvements, health care coverage expanded and improved, alternative energies explored, law and code enforcement enhanced, child and elder care expanded, and more. Given that, it is questionable to assert that we can not only fail to address these problems, but generate even less revenue and provide a decent level of public services. In other words, saying the entire system needs to be reviewed and fundamentally changed--that is, public spending reduced enormously--is perfectly fine, but you need to detail how exactly this is possible. The people Ray Long describes in his piece are the "most vulnerable" and seem to be people who get up and go to a job every single day, producing revenue and profit for their employer--or want to. The state services they receive they rely on to be able to do that. Can the Tribune square that reality, reported on in their paper, with their implied contention in these editorials that public spending can be dramatically reduced to current (and lower) revenue levels?

The Trib is obviously willing to print good stories that show the human side of "government spending" so the editorial board can't hold that such a thing does not exist. They therefore have not only the means but the imperative to explain in detail what they mean when they argue for "spending reform" as a solution to the revenue shortfalls that force the state to borrow money and spur such animosity and gridlock in Springfield.

* If a politician, editorial board, think tank, or advocacy group says Illinois can (and should) implement cuts to close the state's deficit, they must explain exactly which programs are "unnecessary" and how much money the state will save as a result. If "tight[er] eligibility rules" are part of their plan, they should also be forced to detail how many underprivileged Illinoisans will lose health coverage due to such policy changes. If they don't, their opinion should be ignored.

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Dennis Fritz / July 28, 2009 12:02 PM

As a former state employee, this is my chance to debunk a few widely held myths.

Myth: The state is overstaffed with uneeded patronage workers.
Fact: This is not so much a myth as a gross overstatement. There is a certain amount of bloat in the system, but it exists overwhelmingly at top of the hierarchy, not at the bottom.
At ground level, where state agencies interact with the public, there is a massive, chronic staffing shortage.

For example, if you have an auto accident and your insurer refuses to pay, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) has exactly four people whose job it is to take your complaint. That is four people in the entire state. Think of how many people live in Illinois, and how common disputes with insurance companies are, and you get the picture.

Myth: The state is inefficiant because it is overly centralized.

Fact: The state is inefficient because it is not centralized enough.

State agencies come into being as a result of laws being passed by the state legislature. There is no point in passing a law unless an agency exists to enforce it. So, presto! An Act is passed in Springfield and an entire new agency needs to be organized.

The state grows agencies the way people in South Texas add rooms to houses. A new child is born to the family, or an aged abuelita moves into the home, so a new room is added. Over time, a house built in this way comes to look awkward and ungainly, because rooms are added haphazardly as need arises, instead of conforming to an overall plan. The house may serve its basic function. However, it can appear unsightly from the street and is hard to find your way around in.

The state has the same problem. The State of Illinois is a fiction, a shorthand way of referring to a scattering of scores of disconnected agencies. Each agency has its own procedures, traditions, internal culture. No one from one agency has any idea what anyone in another agency is doing. No one is ever told who regulates what. There is no integration of any kind. It is this lack of centralized integration that makes navigating the state such a headache for its citizens.

ardecila / July 29, 2009 3:31 AM

Good points, Ramsin. Unfortunately, they can't be summed up into sound bytes or bits of rhetoric, so they'll never catch the ears of John Q Public.

However, your post also displays a little bit of hypocrisy. Here at Gapers Block, you attempt to feature political bloggers with varying opinions (although it's obvious that most of them lean left). In the digital era, is it unreasonable for the Trib to likewise feature editorials of varying stripes? This is no longer the 1940s, when Chicagoans had 5 or 6 dailies to choose from, out of which they could select the one they most closely aligned to.

The Trib believes that it cannot afford to alienate segments of its readership by taking hard stances on issues. This either leads to frustrating neutrality, or a mix of viewpoints. Haven't you noticed how newspaper endorsements have ceased to be major factors in elections? It's because the Trib doesn't want to take a side publicly.

Chris / July 31, 2009 1:44 AM

The Tribune seems to have divorced itself from the "Republican paper" label, but still wants to seem center-right on the political spectrum when it comes to "higher taxes," even if it's a logical leap.

If you think it is just going to be the programs that impact the vulnerable, think again. Ron Huberman, feels that the $84 million funding gap (on top of the previous system deficit) will impact the core education programs of the Chicago Public Schools.

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