Disappointing. Frustrating. Intolerable. These are just a few words that come to mind when characterizing the Senate’s week (Feb. 27-March 3) of little action, especially when it comes to our number one job: the state budget. However, I still have hope that common sense and courage will win in the end, and we will get a budget that will allow Illinois to move forward economically.
Hurting for Jobs
There’s no doubt the challenge is great and we must act soon. According to a recently released report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), Illinois has the highest black unemployment rate of any state as of the end of 2016. Additionally, EPI reports that Illinois has led the nation in black unemployment since the middle of 2015. The nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank reports Illinois’ black joblessness at 11.3 percent, while overall unemployment in Illinois stands at 5.5 percent.
The EPI analysis is just one more reason there should be a super-sense of urgency to fix the budget and change the business/jobs climate in Illinois. Right now, people are hurting and some cannot take care of their families because opportunities are limited. Job creators – the risk takers – aren’t willing to invest. That’s why we must be willing to make the tough, courageous decisions to ensure long-term positive change.
The Grand BAD Bargain
Unfortunately, in Springfield there are still too many politicians wanting to cling to the easy way out, which is to pass another income tax increase and create new sales taxes – penalizing the people in the process. That won’t solve our fiscal problems, because it doesn’t address the underlying problem: the entrenched policies that overspend, overtax and overregulate. While the so-called “Grand Bargain” budget is now shelved, I’m not convinced the Grand BAD Bargain is dead. Like the zombie characters on a popular TV show, it could sneak up at any minute, ready to devour the hard-earned dollars of Illinois taxpayers.
While the budget deal is on hold, I am continuing to work on a budget alternative – with Republicans and Democrat colleagues – that is respectful to the people, like you, who pay the bills. It’s your money that we use to operate state government and that’s why lawmakers must be willing to make changes for the benefit of the people of Illinois. We hope to unveil the plan soon. It contains more than a dozen ways to make government smaller and affordable. The solution to our budget crisis should not include the same bad decisions and behaviors that got us into the current financial crisis. Regrettably, that’s exactly what the “Grand BAD Bargain” budget plan was all about.
Reform = Recovery
The single largest budget debt problem facing Illinois is the underfunding of public pension plans. Some estimates put the debt at $130 billion. That’s roughly equivalent to a bill of $11,000 for each man, woman and child in Illinois. If you’re a family of four, you basically owe $44,000 to fund those pension systems.
To address this massive problem, the burden of these public pensions should be put on the people who are deciding the pension and salary benefits: local schools, universities and local governments. Right now, decisions are made locally, but the burden is carried by the state – and by extension – to every Illinois citizen. In exchange for taking on the consequences of their local decisions, we need to give them relief from unfunded state mandates so they can act responsibly and with accountability to the taxpayers.
Senate Gambles on Our Future
The Senate’s week in Springfield also included passing a massive expansion of gambling as a means to generate new revenue for the state of Illinois. Gambling is a poor way of generating tax revenue. I said during debate that it’s embarrassing that instead of doing the hard work of disciplining ourselves to lower our spending and reduce the size of this government that’s unaffordable to the people, we look to solutions like gambling, which disproportionately takes money from lower-income individuals.
I told my fellow senators that the gambling solution is a gimmick, similar to one of those late-night TV fitness gadgets you see on a commercial. You’re told to strap it on, plug it in and press the button to get fit. Easy. No work required. Gambling is just a gimmick to avoid the real work and effort – the tough decisions necessary – to get our fiscal house in order for the long-term benefit of the people.
I’m Still Hopeful
We can fix our budget crisis and at the same time revitalize our economy to create the opportunity and prosperity many people are missing. The legislature must step up and admit they are the biggest part of the problem because of failed policies of the past, which they refuse to give up.
Illinois is in crisis. We currently owe the people who do business with the state about $12 billion. These are businesses that provide goods and critical human services for the most vulnerable. Our long-term public debt is at a level that will burden future generations, and the advancement of our state economy remains well behind most other states. The answer to these challenges will take more courage than just imposing higher taxes on the people. The way out is within our reach. I’m committed to doing everything I can to make it possible.
Synthetic Heroin Ban Update
The news during the week is not all bad. I’m pleased to report the legislation I’m sponsoring to ban synthetic heroin received the unanimous support of the Senate Criminal Law Committee on March 1. Synthetic heroin has been attributed to 46 deaths nationwide and linked to more than 40 other deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Like synthetic marijuana, which we were successful in making illegal last year, synthetic heroin has colorful nicknames, such as “U4” and “Pink,” which hide its destructive consequences. Heroin, whether it’s synthetic or not, is becoming a cultural scourge. It’s destroyed lives and devastated families across Illinois. The victims lived in Chicago, its suburbs, and communities and rural areas throughout downstate Illinois.
I am looking forward to presenting Senate Bill 702 to the full Senate before the end of April. I’m thankful for the assistance of the Illinois State Police who helped write the legislation. The measure addresses synthetic heroin in the same way we did with the synthetic marijuana ban (Public Act – 99-0371) passed in 2015, which became law last year. We are banning the base compound of synthetic heroin, which will allow authorities to prosecute people for bringing the drug into the state and distributing it.