A rotten, stinking mess

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

Well, the great state of Illinois finally has an operating budget.

It may have taken more than 700 days, the threat of junk bond status, hefty tax hikes and the spectacle of two stubborn old men playing high-stakes chicken. But elected officials showed that they can put a spending plan in place. All it took was the prospect of Armageddon.

By any objective standard, what took place in Illinois during the past two-plus years is a textbook example of bad governance. 

But in retrospect, perhaps it was inevitable.

After all, Illinois now has a governor who makes about a million dollars a week in personal and business dealings lining up on the side that's complaining that union workers get too much money. 

But apparently that phrase about politics being the art of compromise is not to be seen in any of his multimillion-dollar dwellings.

Then there is his Democratic foil, House Speaker Mike Madigan. Patronage king Madigan is arguably the state's most powerful man, despite routinely being re-elected with fewer than 30,000 votes. 

It's hard to tell which of these two characters history will judge more severely. 

But here's the thing. Despite the years-long intrigue, Illinois doesn't really have a political problem. It has a math problem.

Simply put, the state cannot pay its bills. For this challenge, there are two surefire remedies: increase taxes or reduce spending. But just because a problem can be solved doesn't mean it will be. All you have to do is ask Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. They too began July without a budget in place, for largely similar economic reasons. (New Jersey also kicked off the month without a spending plan, but has since resolved its impasse.)

So 10 states out of 50 greeted July with no budget. That's a fairly robust 20%. Kind of makes you wonder what might happen if, say, an overdue economic downturn were to occur.

In that case, the Illinois fiasco might look less like a joke — and more like business as usual.