Budget Woes Nationwide

by Michael Ibrahem 

The budget woes for the state of Illinois have dragged on for many months. The Civic Federation in Chicago recently published a report which called for Illinois state government to reduce pension benefits, cut $2.5 billion from the budget, and increase taxes.

But what do the people think?

Protestors have also been urging the state to do something about its budget problems.

Last June 18, RJ interviewed some of the estimated 2,000 activists who rallied at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. A wide coalition of groups targeted members of the Illinois state legislature, vowing to stay on the case until things get resolved satisfactorily, meaning that they agree on a plan everyone can live with.

The demonstrators demanded that state lawmakers get the money to do what is needed to fund important programs and pay employees. At the time, Gov. Pat Quinn said the state was short some $9.2 billion and warned that social service agencies will be hit hard if a solution is not found.

Grassroots activist Eric Tellez was one of those who came out to add his voice to the crowd of concerned citizens present that day. Tellez was convinced that an increase in personal as well as corporate income tax rates would go a long way to resolving the state’s budget problems.

“Increase income tax rates and also the current Earned Income Tax Credits for those who have jobs but can hardly make ends meet,” said Tellez.

One sign-carrying protestor commented that he would gladly take a bit more out of his pay check to keep many needed social service programs going. Nicholas Maggio said, “I would be all for making such a sacrifice. I am fully aware how important many of these public programs are.”

Maggio was carrying a stack of literature from a group called Voter Voice. The fliers enticed people to “TAKE ACTION EVERY DAY!…by calling your state legislators frequently, to support community efforts to keep these important programs going.”

Many people at the rally agreed with Tellez and Maggio that a tax increase would set things right. Others disagreed. They argued that an increase in taxes will be a further hardship on the working poor.

One of the most passionate and creative groups at the protest was a contingent of teenagers who called themselves Youths Against Gang Violence. This group came out to support their agenda of staying in school and keeping away from gang violence. Confident and brave, the teens carried placards and signs, but also displayed a young man who convincingly lay in a coffin without moving. The youth in the coffin symbolized those young people who are victims of violence in low-income communities. To them, the stakes in this budget battle are life and death.

Many states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania and especially California, simply will not have the money to pay their bills if more money is not found. One out of every eight Americans live in California, and any solution for a state budget that serves so many people will require a huge effort.

Ask the Legislators

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (4), who recently won the Democratic nomination for Cook County Board President, observed that Illinois’ budget problems have been with us a long time.

“The severity of the problems we are now confronted with have been billowing for decades,” Preckwinkle said in an interview. “All the way back to Gov. Thompson, to (George) Ryan and (Rod) Blagojevich.”

Preckwinkle added that legislators tackled our budget problems mostly by “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” taking money from state retirement funds and elsewhere and then allocating them to some other place.

If she wins her bid for the County Board presidency, Preckwinkle has promised to repeal an unpopular tax installed by current Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. Preckwinkle said she will make cuts to the County budget to make up for the reduced tax income.

Putting together a financial budget that will work is not as simple a project as some might think. Illinois’ fiscal year begins every July 1, like many other states in America.

Ted Fetter, an aide to state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), a leader of the Democratic majority in the Illinois House of Representatives, explained why different people often use widely different figures when they refer to the current budget deficit.

“It is a matter of how the numbers are crunched and how many public service and social service agencies along with their needs are factored in,” Fetter said. “Many of the quotes you will hear include some agencies while others will leave some out.

“What usually happens is that a state will make budget proposals based on how much it expects to collect in taxes from sales, income tax, state fees gathered from doing business with city assistance, and other means the states have to forecast their incomes. Then, based on the state’s needs, a budget proposal is put together and plans are made.”

However, many things can happen to mess up the plans of state legislators. For example, the global economic downturn we are experiencing currently is lowering the amounts of money states are bringing in, just as it is increasing the need for state services.

Fetter blamed the Blagojevich administration for initiating programs impossible without funding them. As one example, Fetter cited the efforts to provide “free rides for seniors and the handicapped” on the Chicago Transit Authority.

We who take the CTA regularly do see seniors in affluent neighborhoods dressed in “ermine and pearls,” like the song says, riding the busses and trains. Could these passengers afford to pay for their rides, at least at the discounted rate for seniors? Would that be enough to close Illinois’ budget gap?

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