The Illinois Legislature's never-ending budget deliberations gear up again today with another special session called by the governor.
The Illinois Legislature's never-ending budget deliberations gear up again today with another special session called by the governor — his 17th — to deal, or not, with mass-transit funding in the Chicago area. The spending on these sessions could soon hit $1 million. The return on that investment has been pretty much zilch.
The governor and some legislative leaders are trying to avert a so-called "doomsday" scenario come Jan. 20 that would have rail and bus systems in the six-county Chicago area raising fares and making service cuts to trim their huge deficits. The proposal now on the table would have the state diverting gas tax dollars generated in the Chicago area directly to mass transit there.
That would also leave a $385 million hole in the state's budget, which is one reason why it's getting opposition. The governor and House Speaker Michael Madigan say that gap can be filled by closing corporate tax loopholes. Increasing revenues through expanded gambling also has come up. Downstate Democrats are balking for another reason, saying they won't bail out public transit in Chicago without a statewide capital program. Pass this and they fear they'll lose their leverage.
Illinois' roads and bridges and schools do need attention after years of neglect. But here's the problem: The state already is on a spending binge with a $59 billion budget passed in August that is more than 8 percent higher than the year before, and we're not convinced the revenues exist to pay for that. To additionally saddle taxpayers with a $13 billion capital plan, as proposed in September, would really be pushing it.
We don't subscribe to the Downstate view that everything Chicago does is evil. Chicago is the state's economic engine. Disable that engine, of which mass transit is an integral part, and we're all in for a world of hurt. That said, the 'blood on the streets' talk coming out of the metropolitan area is hyperbole in terms of surmounting this immediate hump. The system's long-term needs — we've read $10 billion over the next decade in equipment and basic infrastructure maintenance and replacement costs — are another matter. This special session won't address that.
All involved should set their sights lower, for now. The Legislature should help the transit systems, but they also should be required to help themselves. Raising fares — say 10 percent — is not the end of the world. Demanding greater efficiency by eliminating duplicative, low-ridership routes is not unreasonable. If the system is unaffordable now, stop expanding it. To claim that city and regional transportation authorities need do nothing different just doesn't fly. Everybody else is paying more for transportation — seen gas prices lately? — and so should they.
As for the larger capital plan Downstaters want, this special session wasn't called for that purpose. Nonetheless, Chicago-area leaders may have no other choice but to give Downstate legislators some concrete assurance that a capital plan is in the offing. It should be smaller. It may mean postponing projects that are nice but not essential. We're not keen on a massive gambling expansion to pay for it.
Finally, we wouldn't need these special sessions to deal with one crisis after another if legislators would look beyond personal and partisan advantage and commit themselves to finding long-term fixes for the state's chronic problems. Illinoisans should be fed up with the power plays and the gimmicks. The consistent failure to confront what ails Illinois is a terrible indictment of Springfield, a poor reflection on those who run the place, and it has to stop.