By Scott Reeder -
Every once in a while an idea so stupid gets floated in Springfield that it just takes one’s breath away. This past week, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White spoke such a thought.
His idea for solving the budget impasse in Springfield?
Lock House Speaker Mike Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner into a room and have three former governors mediate the dispute.
Reporters immediately focused in on White’s call for George Ryan to be one of the three “wise men” to mediate.
White was asked whether Ryan's conviction on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud made it appropriate for him to be involved in budget discussions.
"That's OK, but we're not talking about corruption right now, we're talking about good government," White told Illinois Radio Network.
In fairness to White, I think what he means is that we didn’t have conflicts like this when Ryan or the other members of his proposed trio — Ryan, Jim Edgar and James Thompson — were the state’s chief executives.
That’s because they went along to get along.
Ryan and Thompson, along with Madigan, ramped up the state’s spending and left state government finances in precarious condition when each left office.
And Jim Edgar reminds me of my favorite Mark Twain quote: “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”
And yes, Edgar is honest. But he is no revolutionary.
The crowning achievement of Edgar’s time in office was the so-called Edgar Ramp, which was touted as a cure for the state’s pension woes.
A better name for it would be the “Edgar Time Bomb.”
In case you haven’t noticed, the bomb has gone off.
And that smoldering crater? It’s the Land of Lincoln.
Back in the 1990s, Edgar, legislative leaders and union bosses reached a grand compromise that called for having low annual pension payments while Edgar was in office and higher ones when future governors were in office.
And those negotiating the compromise played make believe.
They pretended that future Illinois politicians were going to be better behaved than past ones. They imagined no one was ever going to skip a pension payment again.
And they even planned that no future governor would ever promise overly generous pension benefits to the government union bosses who helped them get elected.
They even conjured up unrealistic expectations of future prosperity to pay those ever-escalating pension payments.
Well, Illinois now has an unfunded pension liability of $113 billion – by far the biggest in the nation.
And our state’s finances are in shambles in part because about 25 percent of every tax dollar going into state government gets sucked away to pay for those pensions.
And what’s Mike Madigan solution? Raise taxes again.
But now he’s dealing with a governor not willing to acquiesce.
Rauner has said he will not support a tax increase until the state undergoes fundamental political and economic reforms.
A stance to which Madigan has dug in his heels and said “no.”
But unlike past Illinois governors, Rauner isn’t budging either.
Change is hard. It threatens Madigan’s power. But Illinois needs reform.
The only way Illinois can remove itself from this cycle of despair is to change how it operates.
But that’s not the sage advice Rauner would likely receive from Jesse White’s proposed trinity of political mentors. After all, they are products of the current political system.
But change is what Illinois needs. And Bruce Rauner needs to stand strong.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com. Readers can subscribe to his free political newsletter by going to ILNEWS.ORG or follow his work on Twitter @scottreeder