A bipartisan project worthy of the Land of Lincoln

John T. Shaw

I’m teaching a class on statesmanship at Southern Illinois University this spring and one of my recurring themes is that statesmanship can take place not only on national and international stages but also in city councils, schools boards and state legislatures.

Statesmanship, at its essence, is the determination of leaders to look to the long term and a disposition to take difficult and politically-unpopular actions to advance the public good.

Illinois’ state budget cries out for statesmanship.

It’s important to note that there has been substantial fiscal progress in Illinois over the past several years. In late February, S&P Global, a top global rating agency, raised Illinois’ long-term credit rating to A- from BBB.* This represented the seventh upgrade the state has received from a rating agency in less than two years. S&P Global cited the state’s “accelerating repayment of its liabilities, rebuilding its budget stabilization fund to decade highs, and a slowing of statutory pension funding growth.”

This is positive and most budget experts agree that Illinois’ fiscal future is better than it has been in some time. However, this is a low bar.

The state still faces formidable budgetary challenges. If the economy weakens significantly, today’s surpluses will be quickly transformed into deficits. The state’s long-term pension challenges remain enormous, and Illinoisans continue to want more state services than they are willing to pay for.

In my discussions with members of the Illinois General Assembly, I often hear that there is more bipartisan cooperation in Springfield than the public assumes but that this cooperation largely occurs on narrow issues. 

On budget policy, there is a familiar and dispiriting pattern. The majority party examines revenue estimates, tallies up spending requests, and assembles a budget that satisfies as many in its party as possible while remaining in balance, at least on paper. The minority party typically sees the budget not as opportunity to present an alternative vision but as an opening to criticize the majority. 

It would be inspiring and important if a small group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers formed a bipartisan Future of Illinois caucus that worked thoughtfully and diligently on a long-term budget plan. This group would carefully examine the medium- and longer-term budget outlook and probe revenue projections and spending programs. It would not just “cut and paste” ideas from past budget cycles but contemplate major reforms of taxes and spending. It would honestly frame alternatives for Illinois voters. 

This Future of Illinois project could accomplish two significant things: generate substantive and creative fiscal proposals and establish a habit of bipartisan cooperation on large issues.  

The group might begin its deliberations by reviewing a recently issued report by the Civic Federation that persuasively argues that a successful fiscal plan for Illinois should eliminate structural budget deficits for the foreseeable future, reform pension funding, and set a goal of Illinois achieving an AA credit rating in five years.

How would the public react to this budget caucus? Would members get a hearing? Would they get a primary opponent for the impertinence of working with members of the other party?

I don’t know. However, I can make this modest pledge. They will be invited to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute for a public event and offered a platform to present their ideas and explain the state’s fiscal predicament.

Paul Simon understood that sound and future-oriented budget policy was the foundation of successful governance. “Anything worthwhile requires sacrifice. The worst course is drifting,” he once wrote. Policymakers, he said, should “be builders of the future, not simply custodians of what we inherited from the past.”

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. John. T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois Carbondale. Shaw’s monthly column explores how Illinois can work toward better politics and smarter government.