By Kristen McQueary
June 30, 2017
Property taxes on the climb.
An income tax hike debated in Springfield.
An unpopular soda tax in Cook County.
Residents with their pockets inside-out in Chicago.
It appears there's an awakening among Illinois voters. And it's about time, after decades of risky borrowing, faulty promises, weak-kneed politicians.
Springfield officials predict they'll need nearly $8 billion for the upcoming fiscal year to make a pension payment to the funds that support retired teachers, university workers, judges, politicians and state workers.
It won't be enough.
Chicago Public Schools needs hundreds of millions of dollars to slow the school district's slide toward financial collapse.
It won't be enough.
The city of Chicago's pension funds, while Mayor Rahm Emanuel has tried to prop them up, are draining toward empty.
There simply isn't enough taxpayer tolerance, or union cooperation, to bridge these systems to recovery. It's too late.
You know the scene in the movie "Goodfellas" when Henry, actor Ray Liotta's character, is worried about the pasta sauce, but drug enforcement helicopters are circling his house? That's Illinois. The Too Late State.
Elected officials knew this was coming. They watched as liabilities in their own employee pension funds rose, even as the statutorily required payments were made. That rising liability was a neon sign that the pension systems eventually would topple, but it sure is hard to spot clues when you're spinning like the Tasmanian devil from one carefully messaged election to the next.
Years ago, when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich created a pension task force to study the state's five funds, the report that emerged illuminated the insurmountable strain of pension costs on the state budget.
I remember approaching former state Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, who served on the task force, about the findings. I was alarmed. He was not. In fact, he sponsored several bills that sweetened the pensions of city and state workers, and teachers. This was in the early 2000s.
What a dope I must have seemed, earnestly questioning him about why he would sponsor legislation he knew would cause more damage to the pension systems.
This was around the time Senate President John Cullerton sponsored a bill to give local governments more tools to borrow money. He joked, as he introduced it, not to ask him any hard questions. The bill had been written by bond interests. The Tribune's 2013 "Broken Bonds" investigative series revealed that Chicago Public Schools by 2007 had issued around $1 billion in risky bonds made possible under that bill.
Mayor Emanuel's City Hall has continued to use high-cost borrowing methods to "balance" Chicago's books. Emanuel and the City Council routinely rely on borrowing to pay off debt. Emanuel has promised that those habits will phase out. But the damage is done.
And yet there they all are, each an Eddie Haskell impostor: "Who me? I am only trying to be reasonable and cooperate, Mrs. Cleaver." Emanuel blames Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner blames House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan blames Rauner. Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle blames Republicans.
I blame us.
It's true, the cliche that this debt did not pile up overnight. It might be the most painful indictment of voters who weren't paying close enough attention, or didn't want to, for so long.
But we are paying attention now.
Why do you think even the most tax-happy lawmakers in Springfield are glancing toward the exits as an income tax vote creeps closer? They have finally figured out what's on the other side.
Kristen McQueary is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board.