A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Politicians take the credit but not the blame

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Sept. 15, 16 or 17

Elected officials are notorious for showing up at ribbon-cuttings – especially during campaign seasons – and not every photo op is at a new road or hospital wing. (A great newspaper editor I worked for once quipped about an area state lawmaker, “He’d show up at the opening of an envelope!”)

A question: When it comes to the flip side of accountability – will they accept blame as well as credit?


That’s becoming increasingly apparent as more details and analysis come out about how Illinois got into its current fiscal mess.

Economist Thomas Walstrum from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago examined more than two decades’ of finances by Illinois government, and he confirmed what most everyday Illinoisans know instinctively. Lawmakers spent more revenue than was generated, and they kept at it in a bipartisan frenzy of short-sighted selfishness or cowardice: giving the public what they wanted to get re-elected, but not risking voters’ ire by proposing taxes to actually pay for it.

Walstrum’s sober study – “The Illinois budget crisis in context: A history of poor fiscal performance” – finds plenty of blame to go around in Springfield by Republicans and Democrats alike – since 1989. That means it’s lasted from the administrations of Republicans Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan as well as Democrats Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn before GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner took office.

Walstrum shows that while most states across the country spent an average of 5.7 percent more than they had over that time, Illinois governments together spent 15.9 percent more than the treasury could pay for.

During those decades of foolishness, they counted on high investment returns to continue indefinitely, borrowed money outright or indirectly by underfunding required pension obligations, conveniently overlooked increasing interest payments, slowed down paying bills to the point of absurdity, and avoided talk of a tax hike like Donald Trump would meeting a Hispanic Muslim woman veteran.

“Over the years, lawmakers used a variety of techniques to put off paying the bills,” Walstrum said. “Such techniques can work for only so long, and Illinois is now coming to terms with over 20 years of poor fiscal performance.”

Now, millionaire politicians such as Rauner mimic their private-sector peers in laying claim to creating wealth but warning Illinoisans we should be prepared to “share the pain” to come. But did such powerful figures really create wealth, or buildings, or jobs – or problems?

They certainly seemed willing and eager to take the credit or the gains, but they’ve avoided the risks and definitely don’t share society’s pains. With their riches came power – power that lets them influence policy and manipulate media (and those susceptible to soothing, if wacky, messages), but to what end? For another reelection? For enough booty to retire to some other state with an infrastructure, humane social programs and a balanced budget? For a legacy they’ll try to draft, regardless of reality?

What of us, those who work and produce, and, yes, pay taxes to provide decent schools, roads,, protections for neighborhoods, the needy, the aged or infirm?

The situation is reminiscent of a poem, “A Worker Reads History,” by Bertolt Brecht (“The Threepenny Opera,” “Mother Courage and Her Children”).

Brecht wrote, “Who built the seven gates of Thebes? The books are filled with names of kings./ Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?/ … Young Alexander conquered India./ He alone?/ Caesar beat the Gauls./ Was there not even a cook in his army?/ … So many particulars./ So many questions.”

[PICTURED: Walstrum (top) and Brecht.]

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