Will Illinois Republican state legislators finally begin to lead?

With all the focus on the presidential race it has been easy (and frankly a pleasure) to ignore the Illinois General Assembly — especially its Republican ranks. I read that on election day our state house caucus shrunk by three members to 48, and the state senate held at 22.

Yawn. Why? Because at this point I’m not sure it matters how many members they have if, as a group, they’re not presenting voters a plan to fix the bipartisan-created fiscal mess. I say bipartisan for two reasons. The Democrats didn’t inherit a state in balance. And while Republicans have been out of power for six years, their failure to make noise on behalf of a serious counter-plan has empowered the Democrats to be the only game in town.

After last week’s election we once again were subjected to the tired old calls for the “moderates” to set the GOP agenda — but it’s pretty clear they’ve already been calling the tune in the General Assembly Republican caucuses for a very long time. If conservatives had been heard from, we’d already know their plan to bring the state into balance, downsize its unfunded liabilities, and pay down its debts.

The slowing economy is giving Republicans in Springfield yet another opportunity to talk about setting priorities, closing down and reforming agencies, and facing the reality that is the unsustainable state employee pension and benefits system.

Crain’s Chicago Business noted in their article “Slowdown could leave state $1B-plus in the hole,” that “The declining economy has begun to deliver a big hit to Illinois tax receipts.”

According to the state Department of Revenue, Illinois is on track to see a roughly $800-million revenue hole this fiscal year, based on receipts for the first four months of fiscal 2009, which began July 1.

“And if the Illinois economy worsens, as many predict,” the department continued in a press release, “the shortfall between fiscal 2009 receipts and budgeted revenue may exceed $1 billion.”

Now is the time for Illinois Republicans in the legislature to get serious about presenting a plan for how they’d solve the state’s fiscal problems. An important note: state Sen. Chris Lauzen has been doing his part to help Illinois citizens understand the extent of the problem (see example here).

Thinking and reasonable Illinois taxpayers will be as receptive as ever, since many family budgets and businesses are already making the kind of common sense adjustments that are required during any slowdown.

Unlike what the state’s public employee unions might think, reality applies to everyone, not just to those working in the private sector.

Republican state legislators would be wise to begin to address the entire picture, and not just the current drop in revenues. The facts brought to light by Sheila Weinberg won’t be going away any time soon, so our guys and gals might as well begin to deal with them. That $1 billion talked about in that Crain’s article is nothing compared to the $44 billion discussed by Weinberg.

And what Bill Zettler has thoroughly outlined on this website must also be addressed. Back in March Bill wrotethis:

The current worldwide market slump has undoubtedly affected the investment returns of many people and organizations including the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS). The reason this is a problem for Illinois taxpayers is because all of the pension fund market risk is passed to the taxpayer not the retiree…

So as taxpayers own retirement incomes are threatened by a decrease in the value of their 401K and IRA’s, their tax liability for funding other peoples retirement goes up, just at the time when they are least able to afford it. This is not only unfair but as the above numbers indicate, will be virtually impossible to pay for.

And that was seven months ago. The markets are in far worse shape today.

Bill’s solution and rationale should be what Republican legislators adopt:

Social Security and 401K’s for all public employees is the only equitable and affordable solution. The question remains — when will Illinois politicians face up to this problem and their responsibility to the taxpayers of Illinois? Public employees do not deserve better pensions than the people they work for, the taxpayers of Illinois.

Which brings us to the bottom line of the “politically possible.” In fact we have two competing impossibilities. Right now there isn’t support to make the needed change, and yet there isn’t enough money to meet the obligations. This is where “leadership” comes in.

Until our Republican state legislators — both house and senate — get to work on winning public support for a constructive and credible solution, deficits, debt, and an unsustainable system will be passed on to the next generation to deal with. And Republican legislators won’t be able to blame the Democrats if they fail to do their job.