We take our solace where we can nowadays. After the spring legislative session in Springfield came and went without a budget, we found comfort, however fleeting, in a Bloomberg report suggesting Wall Street bond houses don’t see Illinois as an economic basket case but rather as the victim of a political logjam that will someday be broken.
Then we remembered, this is Illinois. If a $15 billion stack of unpaid bills, unfunded pension obligations north of $130 billion and the threat of a credit downgrade to junk haven’t generated enough energy to force a breakthrough, then it’s hard to say what other fiscal consequences will. We may not do many things right in this state, but one thing’s for sure: We build mighty durable logjams.
In the argot of Chicago Machine politics, to bear responsibility for a massive failure is to “wear the jacket” for it, and the budget meltdown jacket ultimately fits House Speaker Michael Madigan best. Gov. Bruce Rauner also deserves a turn in the jacket, as Crain’s pointed out at this time last year when the state entered its second year under his leadership without a budget. But another pol who must at least try the jacket on for size is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
This spring, as Springfield careened toward fiscal calamity, the mayor of the state’s largest city played a remarkably muted role—despite the fact that Chicago had much riding on the outcome of the legislative warfare.
As Crain’s noted in a June 5 postmortem, the mayor’s low profile on the Springfield front is especially odd considering Chicago desperately needs state money to curb the “two cities” narrative that has intensified on his watch. While downtown and the North Side are booming, the South and West sides are suffering from economic neglect. Critical aid from social services agencies is at risk, if not eliminated, health care institutions are awaiting state reimbursements, South Side colleges, community colleges and universities such as City Colleges of Chicago and Governors State University have been crippled by layoffs and closings, students from low-income households are not graduating due to state aid shortfalls, the Chicago Transit Authority faces cuts and CPS is buried under a skyscraper of debt—an estimated $130 million budget hole with a $720 million pension payment due late this month.
Emanuel, however, has largely chosen to jawbone about it from the safety of City Hall. Yes, he dispatched lieutenants and lobbyists to push for certain agenda items in Springfield, and he scored some wins along the way—including a 911 tax that was passed with Republican support. His defenders also note that mayoral confidant Michael Sacks was in Springfield working the back channels during the legislative session—and we are glad that he was.
But the biggest piece of the people’s business—a balanced budget—remains undone, and there are few signs that will change anytime soon, a fact that could have enormous and expensive consequences come July 1, when credit rating agencies say they’re likely to downgrade Illinois bonds to junk sans a budget.
Nothing is more important to Chicago than producing a balanced state budget, as Emanuel himself told the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce the other day. The mayor could have loudly marshaled constituents—CEOs, parents, teachers, university staffers, hospital workers, first responders, small-business owners and, simply, taxpayers—to put public pressure on Madigan and Rauner to save Illinois and, in turn, Chicago, from the current disaster. Therefore we’re scheduling Emanuel for his jacket-fitting.
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