As Illinois daily sinks ever deeper into the financial cesspool, 35 states are considering cutting taxes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Indiana cut its personal income tax 5 percent over two years and, with a variety of others cuts, will save taxpayers about $600 million. Wisconsin is expected to take in $500 million more in the next two years than first estimated, prompting tax-cut talk and possibly giving public schools more money.
Florida temporarily eliminated a sales tax on manufacturing equipment. Iowa cut property taxes and limited assessment increases on residential and agricultural property to no more than 3 percent annually.
Of course, not all 35 states cut taxes. But none that I could find raised personal income taxes 67 percent like Illinois did in 2011. That, of course, has produced more revenue, but most of it goes to pay for public employee pensions. Unexpected increased revenues didn't do much except to pay off a couple billion dollars of old bills, leaving the state a measly $5.8 billion in arrears.
Bradley Hahn, spokesman for state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, says the figure consists of 74,537 actual unpaid bills at the comptroller's office totaling $3.8 billion and an estimated $2 billion in bills that the office believes are at state agencies but not yet submitted to the comptroller's office.
Illinois remains the biggest deadbeat and proud owner of the lowest credit rating among the states. It undoubtedly will go lower if Gov. Pat Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan this week again fail to unite their Democrats in the General Assembly to solve the state's pension problem.
The pension reform bill sponsored by Madigan that passed the House is, according to analysts, better than Cullerton's Senate bill. Madigan's bill limits pensionable salary, reduces the amount of automatic annual pension increases, requires the pension systems to be 100 percent funded by 2045, increases required employee contributions and phases in a higher retirement age.
Cullerton's plan so represents public employee unions that they warn against anyone in the House "tinkering" with it. As if the unions own the state. Wait, they do.
But even if Madigan's legislation, which now has Quinn's support, passes, it won't really solve the problem, and that's the biggest disappointment of this entire debate. The Illinois Policy Institute reminded us Monday that the only "true" solution is to institute a "defined contribution" pension system in which employees contribute a set amount that is matched by the state or local governments.
As opposed to the "defined benefit" system in which retirees are guaranteed certain and ever-increasing amounts of benefits. The institute asserts that by transitioning to the defined-contribution plan, unfunded pension debt — now conservatively estimated to be approaching $100 billion — will be cut in half.
Nice, but it's a little late in the game to be pitching an entirely different plan that's not included in either the Madigan or Cullerton legislation. But it's not a bad idea to keep the plan in mind when the current negotiations and the entire pension system collapse, as they ultimately will.
This stubborn and childish deadlock has every sign of continuing until the state descends into an unimaginable crisis. Maybe everyone then will come to their senses and in widespread anger and frustration amend the state constitution to remove the provision that protects public pensions from being "diminished."
But there's another scenario suggested by John Tillman, Illinois Policy Institute CEO: A deadlock on pension reform could eventually lead to major core service cuts, massive tax increases or the replacement of all government employees with private-sector contract workers. Then the state wouldn’t have to shell out for extravagant and backbreaking public pensions.
Of course, it would take a new governor (the next election is in 2014) committed unquestionably to cleaning up the mess. One who would say, "Sorry, folks, but we just don't have the money to continue this insanity. The interest that we now have to pay on the debt we have incurred to prop up the pension funds is eating up money for schools, social services for the needy, highways and infrastructure."
I can only guess at the legal consequences of such Draconian action, considering the complexities of labor law. The angry demonstrations in Wisconsin over state-imposed restrictions on collective bargaining would pale in comparison to the turmoil that would erupt in Illinois.
But what other choices do we have? If the Democrats who run the state don't come up with a compromise, we'll continue on the same path, borrowing ever more money and incurring ever larger interest payments until the state is actually bust. But if Democrats agree on a compromise and Tillman is right that nothing short of a defined contribution system will fix the problem, then we're still in a jam.
Have we actually reached a point where there is no practical or political solution?
Dennis Byrne, a Chicago writer, blogs in The Barbershop on chicagonow.com/byrne.