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Illinois Voters: Confused About How to Fix the State, As Usual

Residents want to repair the budget with cuts, not new revenue. But they don’t like cuts to fully 85 percent of the budget, and they really want some specific new taxes. Our gridlock might start at the grassroots level.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Via a poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois (h/t Capitol Fax), residents have weighed in on how to fix Illinois. As usual, the solutions are reflected as if in a mirror dimly:

1) They want to cut the budget
2) Except not 85 percent of the budget, mostly
3) No new revenues!
4) Except for the major new taxes they very strongly support

“This is a perplexing phenomenon in Illinois public opinion,” says one of the poll’s directors, SIU visting prof Charlie Leonard, in a statement reacting to their results that is a little more aggravated than you usually get from academics. “After more than a decade of cuts to public budgets, people can’t let go of the idea that there is $1.5 billion in waste to cut. We have written about this extensively before, but the persistent belief in cutting ‘waste,’ coupled with the inability to agree on solutions, means we’ll probably still be writing about it in the future.”

Having written about this extensively before, I can confirm that Leonard’s prediction is based on a solid foundation of inaction; they have years of data backing it up. As of 2016, the only expenditure that a majority of voters isn’t opposed to cutting is pensions, and that’s only a relatively recent phenomenon.

Anyway, if you were wondering why the state is in perpetual budget crisis and went two years without one, the mixed messages we send legislators might be as big a part of it as legislative gridlock itself.

For instance.

A bare majority for three main options is, as these things go, substantial agreement. But then things get weird.

85 percent of the budget is education and health and human services, so the poll next turns to those departments.

The number one answer is “not that.”

The number two answer by a substantial margin is higher education, which we’ve been doing, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s making things worse in the long run: driving college students, aka likely future taxpayers, into the arms of other Midwestern universities and weakening downstate job engines. So we could, but caveat emptor. (Lynne Marek of Crain’s had an excellent piece on the outflow of Illinois high-school graduates to out-of-state universities last month.)

Maybe we should ask about new revenues that respondents were pretty adamant about not wanting. Just in case.

Wait, but….

[Massages forehead.]

It’s technically possible that you could implement these new taxes while cutting other taxes and end up with no new net revenue. But if you’re not cutting 85 percent of the budget, it’s probably not going to fix the problem.

Anyway, legislators and the governor have (rightfully) gotten heat for going years without an actual balanced budget, not to mention the couple years that we didn’t have a budget at all. It’s been costly indecision, both figuratively and literally. But the people sending them to Springfield, aka us, aren’t especially decisive either.

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