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What Do Illinois Citizens Want to Do to Fix the State Budget?

We actually do agree on a few things—unfortunately, they range from extremely unlikely to totally useless.

A rally for Equal School Funding at Marine Leadership Academy in May.   Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune

Recently the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU collected years of polls in order to figure out what citizens think of the state of Illinois (they agree it’s going bad places) and what they want to do about it (there’s less agreement there). So, no big surprises yet. The title’s pretty clear on what the authors—John Jackson, Charles W. Leonard, and Shiloh L. Deitz—see as the problem: ”The Climate of Opinion in Illinois 2008-2016: Roots of Gridlock.”

And they don’t hold back: “The Illinois example also serves as a sort of laboratory experiment and cautionary tale in which a series of campaigns over the past decade have failed abysmally to deal honestly with the budget and pension issues and have failed to teach the voters the entirely predictable consequences of those failures.”

Do tell. But among the citizens, there’s less gridlock than in Springfield about what to do about the state’s problems—even if the people themselves don’t realize it.

First, here’s how people want to address the budget deficit, according to the most recent polling.

Party Cuts Both Revenues Haven’t Thought Don’t Know/Other
Total 47% 33% 10% 4% 6%
Democrats 36% 36% 16% 5% 7%
Republicans 60% 32% 4% 3% 2%
Independents 50% 34% 9% 4% 3%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy

The popularity of cuts alone has actually fallen for each ideology: In 2009, 69 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of independents, and 49 percent of Democrats endorsed that position. Still, we collectively want to cut our way out of the problem. Now let’s figure out what people want to cut.

Program 2009 2011 2016
State Pension Benefits 42% 46% 49%
Natural Resources 33% 37% 38%
State Universities 34% 38% 35%
Public Safety 17% 21% 26%
Programs for the Poor 21% 25% 25%
K-12 Education 13% 17% 25%
Programs for Mental/Physical Disabilities 12% 12% 15%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy

Only one of these program, pension benefits, has a large majority in favor of cuts from Republicans, who are far more in favor of addressing the state’s budget deficit through cuts alone. They’re in favor 62 to 32 percent; Democrats oppose doing so, 41 percent to 53 percent. Plus, it’s all but constitutionally prohibited to do so. What else can we cut?

Natural resources? Republicans favor cuts 51 to 44 percent. State universities? The same. After that, cuts to public safety, programs for the poor, K-12 education, and programs for people with mental or physical disabilities do not get a majority of support from anyone.

Least popular are cuts to programs for people with mental and physical disabilities. 84 percent of Democrats oppose them, 80 percent of Republicans, and 80 percent of independents. Of course, cuts to those programs are exactly what’s happening during the budget impasse.

So maybe we don’t want to cut our way to a balanced budget after all. Which makes sense, since it’s more or less impossible to do so without gutting programs that people support and use. That makes the next question all the more relevant: What new revenues do people favor?

Restoring the temporary state income tax hike? Nope, even Democrats are opposed to that, 55 percent to 40 percent.

Expand gambling? A small majority is in favor, though we agree in our disagreement: 51 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans, and 47 percent of independents want that approach.

Tax retirement income? Raise the sales tax? Neither is popular among any ideology. A modest majority of Democrats want to expand taxes on services—something the governor has mentioned as a possibility—52 to 44 percent.

But there’s one thing that is relatively popular: soaking the rich. And the more closely targeted the policy is towards the rich, the more popular it is. Let’s start with the graduated income tax (which, like pension cuts, is prohibited by the constitution).

Party Favor Oppose Don’t Know
Democrats 83% 12% 4%
Republicans 44% 51% 3%
Independents 68% 27% 5%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy

This may come as a mild surprise—independents are heavily in favor, and even Republicans are not heavily opposed. Now, let’s try a millionaire’s tax, which the Speaker has floated.

 

Party Favor Oppose Don’t Know
Democrats 88% 10% 2%
Republicans 56% 42% 1%
Independents 77% 22% 1%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy

There we go. It’s unconstitutional, of course, but at least we agree on something, even if it’s impossible without a constitutional amendment.

The numbers for taxing retirement income over $50,000—Illinois is one of the few states with an income tax that does not tax retirement income—are even more interesting. Compared to the millionaire’s tax, favorability plummets among Democrats, but not among Republicans, who favor it with a slim majority. 

Party Favor Oppose Don’t Know
Democrats 58% 36% 6%
Republicans 50% 46% 4%
Independents 59% 37% 4%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy

Bobby Otter of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability told Reboot Illinois that there might be a workaround via tax rebates that would make a graduated retirement income tax constitutionally feasible, bringing in $1.1 billion in new revenue.

We agree on other things as well. Majorities of all ideologies favor independent redistricting by a neutral person (71 percent overall) or an independent commission (63 percent overall). That’s a cornerstone of the governor’s turnaround agenda, offering potential leverage for legislation favored by Democrats.

The bad news? It probably wouldn’t do anything, as Thomas Bowen has argued in the Trib:

There is clear-cut evidence of this from the states, according to a 2012 paper authored by University of Denver professor Seth Masket, University of Mississippi professor Jonathan Winburn and Indiana University professor Gerald C. Wright. They found that there is little variation over time in how many elections are contested under maps drawn by single-party legislatures, nonpartisan commissions and judicial bodies. Little difference in representation exists when maps are drawn by nonpartisan redistricting commissions or elected officials, according to a 2008 paper by Bradley University professor Josh Ryan and University of Colorado Professor Jeffrey Lyons.

In other words, the problem isn’t the districts, it’s the people in them. Then again, if redistricting is ineffectual, perhaps that makes it an even better trade chip. As a wise man once said, maybe this situation requires a really futile and stupid gesture on somebody’s part.

All in all, it’s a good measure of why we’re in such chaos. We claim we want to cut our way out of the problem, but only one type of cut (pensions) gets even close to an overall majority and is constitutionally prohibited. We’re actually in favor of higher taxes, but only in forms that are constitutionally prohibited, not that even an advisory referendum on a millionaire’s tax can make it onto the ballot. And one of the governor’s pet projects, extremely popular among the electorate and a potentially valuable piece of political leverage, would most likely do little to alleviate any of these problems.

We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

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