Gov. Pat Quinn is right in saying an income tax increase that would generate between $3 billion and $5 billion is needed to help correct an Illinois budget that is spiraling toward the abyss. The state cannot continue to nibble around the edges and rely on revenue gimmicks while staring at a projected $11.5 billion deficit a year from now.
Yet, it’s unlikely the income tax hike will happen. For starters, too many elected officials have been shortsighted in recent years in taking a blanket no-tax pledge, a move designed chiefly to play well with voters and ignore reality as the deficit grew. Even though the Senate approved one last year, House Speaker Michael Madigan never called a vote, and he doesn’t sound like he plans to do so this year, either, not with legislators facing voters in November.
The other reason is that the state has not shown it can handle money. State officials at all levels can blame the economy for a large part of this, but Illinois was a financial mess before the markets tanked. Schools, service agencies and providers were being starved. Pension obligations were not being met. Necessary projects that could have produced jobs were put on hold.
Taxpayers have the right to be skeptical. They might take a leap of faith and support higher income taxes if they thought the state would spend the money wisely, fix the problems through cuts and reform measures, and restore financial sanity. But this is Illinois, the land of political hiring, exorbitant pensions and shady deals. One former governor is in prison and another could be headed there.
So the budget debate will be like watching auto racing: We may just tune in to see the crashes.