When it comes to state spending, Illinois politicians are giving voters what they want. That’s the problem.
This story begins Monday on Metra’s BNSF Railway, which stretches from downtown Chicago to Aurora in the far western suburbs.
For the second Monday in a row, the evening commute was in chaos owing to a signal problems. Trains were delayed or canceled, and throngs of people were packed into Union Station.
In a general statement on its website, Metra says it’s facing “the worst financial crisis in its 33-year history,” and blames its deteriorating infrastructure in part on cuts in state spending.
If one does manage to get a BNSF train out of Chicago, one can stop in the town of Western Springs. That station happens to be just inside the legislative district of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who earlier that very Monday was part of an anti-tax news conference organized by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s re-election campaign.
In it, Durkin had tough words for what he called “more Democrat(ic) spending, which is the root evil and the root problem of all issues that we have in Springfield.”
While Metra and other government entities are crying out for more money, Republicans and some Democratic legislators are saying no, and using words like “evil” to do so.
This disconnect, this divide over how the government responds to competing and growing demands for money is the fight that’s dominated state politics for most of this century.
Who should pay for government? How and where should that money be spent? Are we getting our fair share?
“Do we get our cut of the pie?” asks John Jackson, a professor of political science at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
“It's probably a more explosive question in Illinois because we have such a long-standing, divisive debate about regionalism. And that debate takes the form of Chicago/Cook County versus Downstate. … And Downstate that resonates because we firmly believe that we're not getting our fair share,” he says.
Jackson has spent years documenting what Illinoisans think they know about their state government. His latest research paper, written with John Foster, is called “The Politics of Public Budgeting in Illinois.”
Those of us who live in Downstate legislative districts often hear politicians talk about "not sending our tax dollars to Chicago" and Chicago sucking up all the tax money in the state. Is that reality?
“Well, the reality is just the opposite — Downstate does very well, actually,” Jackson says. “If you define fair share as getting a dollar back for every dollar sent to Springfield, the only two negative numbers are for Cook County and the five Suburban counties — the collar counties. The collar counties actually get $0.53 back for every dollar they pay in. Cook County doesn't break even, but they get $0.90 back, whereas Downstate does quite all right. Central Illinois gets $1.87 back and we in Southern Illinois do the best at $2.81 back for every dollar sent to Springfield. And that just debunks the legend that is out there, but a deeply ingrained part of our political culture.”
Indeed, Jackson says without public universities, community colleges and prisons — and the spending those institutions and their employees do in their communities — in southern Illinois there would be very little economic activity at all without the state.
And in polling the Simon Institute has done, people seem to recognize the value of that state spending. During the budget impasse, one poll listed specific areas of state government spending and asked whether it should be cut.
The respondents overwhelmingly rejected cuts to schools, state universities, public safety, anti-poverty programs, and support for people with disabilities. And yet almost all of them thought cuts should be at least part of the solution to Illinois’ financial problems.
16/ So let’s recap. Cut …
State Univ? No
Natural Resources? No
Pensions? No— Brian Mackey (@BrianMackey) July 6, 2017
“We had that finding consistently over ten straight years of Paul Simon public polls,” Jackson says. “And that finding shows the incongruity of always wanting supposedly to cut programs and to 'cut waste and fraud,' but 'waste and fraud' is always someone else's program.”
Jackson says political scientists call that disconnect “symbolic conservatives and operational liberals.” Such people want government programs, especially if it benefits them directly, “but they want to get rid of somebody else's waste and fraud. And that's the way the legislature has essentially acted, and government in the state has acted.”
The idea of symbolic conservatives and operational liberals calls to mind something a state senator told me years ago. It was Jeff Schoenberg, a Democrat from Evanston who’s since left the legislature. Then-Gov. Pat Quinn had proposed closing a few state facilities Downstate, and local legislators were resisting.
“They talk a good game about being fiscally conservative, but when it comes to closing a public facility that’s under-utilized or not cost efficient, they’re like New Deal Democrats,” Schoenberg said in 2012.
Jackson says such politicians are happy to show up at the ribbon cutting — thus taking credit for government spending. He says this is true on both a state and federal level.
“The Congress as a whole is doing what the people want. That is, they are giving us the programs but not making this generation pay for them — they're putting the payment off,” Jackson says.
So what does this disconnect — this misunderstanding among members of the electorate — mean for the enterprise of the people governing themselves in Illinois?
“Mass democracy has to depend ultimately on people being informed,” Jackson says. “It'd be great if much of the debate were at least influenced by the facts. And so one of the reasons we did this study was to make sure that this argument is fact-driven, which it currently is definitely not.
“The whole question of what is reality is up for debate and up for grabs in the national scene. And I think that's a pernicious question for the future of mass democracy, which after all depends on an informed electorate.”
Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.