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Olson: Big numbers, big problems in state finances

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 3)

Illinois’ fiscal crisis can be tough to wrap your head around. It involves numbers that are unfathomably large, a problem dizzying in its scope.

It’s not as sensational as a giant meteor crashing to Earth, the latest nuclear test in North Korea, or the Academy Awards coming up this weekend.

Seriously, how did Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck not draw best director nominations, anyway?

State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka isn’t as easily distracted from the state’s financial crisis. Her office is knee-deep in it. Topinka says it stands to have a tremendous effect on the everyday lives of people – and sooner rather than later.

When I spoke to her Monday, her office had almost 170,000 unpaid bills totaling about $6.3 billion, going back to September.

“That’s strictly the day-to-day, what we owe, and we go back to September of last year, so I haven’t made Christmas yet,” Topinka said. “I celebrate holidays at different times than other people.”

Topinka, a Republican has held elected office in Illinois since 1980, spending four years as a state representative, 10 years in the state senate, and then three terms as state treasurer. She also mounted a failed run for governor against Rod Blagojevich in 2006. Too bad she didn’t win that race.

Since 2011, she’s been in charge of paying the state’s bills at a time when there’s not money enough to pay them. Not that the state isn’t taking in any money. In fact, the state has seen huge increases in the revenue it collects per person in the past two years.

But the state’s pension funds are gobbling up all the money. And no matter how much money is diverted their way, it’s still not enough to fulfill the promises to retired government workers. Depending on how you account for it, the state is $96 billion or $200 billion behind.

Either way, they’re big, ugly numbers.

Our state’s lawmakers don’t like the story either. They’ve been putting off this reckoning for years now, but they can’t put it off much longer. A solution is going to affect all of us.

“It will affect how much they have to live on in the future, it will probably affect what their taxes will be,” Topinka said. “There is a major hook here on a number of fronts which could really hurt our people pretty severely. “

One point of view says that the pensioners have done their part and it is the irresponsible legislators who have raided the pension funds who are to blame. The state needs to do its part no matter how much the working people and businesses must be taxed to do it.

The other viewpoint says we can’t afford these extravagant promises; pensions are impractical and are no longer available to anyone who works outside government. Some pensioners gamed the system to secure ridiculously outsized pensions, some collect their pensions while working at other jobs, others collect multiple pensions. We can’t allow the entire state to be bankrupted and its residents taxed into oblivion to make six-figure tax-free pension payouts that increase each and every year.

There is going to be a fight over this, both in the legislature and probably in the courts as well.

“These are going to be terrible votes,” Topinka said. “People are going to lose elections over this. People don’t like to lose elections, but it has to get done. Illinois is just in a whirlpool, and the whirlpool is just sucking us under.

“By law, we cannot declare bankruptcy. If we could, we would. Any other entity would be bankrupt by now. No one would do business with them.”

The unpopular proposals are starting to trickle in. On Wednesday, State Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie, proposed making the 67 percent income-tax hike passed by lame-duck legislators in 2010 permanent, and dedicating that money to pension payments. Of course, that’s where it’s already going and then some.

The tax hike was supposed to expire in 2014, but then again, the tollway system was supposed to be a temporary solution, too.

There will be more.

Until we get some kind of solution, Topinka said her office will continue to try to pay what it can, when it can on the state’s bills.

“I move the non-for-profit agencies up to the front because they have no options and they’re dealing with our most vulnerable citizens,” Topinka said. “Some of them are just hanging on by a thread, they’ve borrowed until they have no credit left.

“… Otherwise, how could they do business?”

Parting shot: Our state government really is a mess. We should be ashamed we’ve let it come to this. More to the point, we should be ashamed we continue to re-elect the people who’ve let it come to this.

• • •

Capt. Hood’s life: We’ve received a few copies of a biography of a famous resident of 19th century Sycamore, James Madison Hood, who served as President Lincoln’s consul to Siam (modern-day Thailand).

The book, simply titled “James Madison Hood,” is 210 pages from preface to epilogue, and although I haven’t read all of it, the parts I’ve sampled give a good look into the life of a man who left no memoirs but had a fascinating life story. The writer, George C. Kingston, is a historian and geneologist who lives in Massachusetts.

Hood first settled in Sycamore around the start of the Civil War in 1861, with his second wife, a 17-year-old, whom he married at age 46.

Hood was an interesting and complex man who knew how to work the legal and political systems of his day. He was an early supporter of Lincoln and the Republican Party, and his political connections helped him secure a post as the U.S. consul to Siam in 1864.

The man lived large, and after some adventures across the globe (and a couple of bankruptcies) he eventually returned to Sycamore and became involved in several businesses, as well as celebrations like the Fourth of July, which the Sycamore True Republican said he “celebrated like a regular Kentucky Colonel.”

The newspaper account went on to detail how Hood fell off a horse cart and into a puddle because he’d celebrated a little too enthusiastically.

Hood’s home was at 614 Somonauk St. in Sycamore, and his monument still stands in Elmwood Cemetery. The book’s cover photo is a group shot of several people around the King of Siam, and one of whom is presumed to be Hood.

The book’s not cheap – $38 for a paperback copy – but then, reconstructing the life of a man who didn’t make a habit of journaling about his life takes work, folks. You can order it online at mcfarlandpub.com, or by calling 800-253-2187.

• • •

Election Central: The DeKalb mayoral race is shaping up to be an interesting one, with four candidates – John Rey, Mike Verbic, Jennifer Groce and David Jacobson – all looking to become the next leader of the City Council.

There are many other local races where voters will have choices to make.

Often we don’t vote in these elections. By “we” I mean almost 9 out of 10 of us. The last municipal elections in DeKalb County drew 11 percent of registered voters to the polls.

One reason people give for skipping these elections is that they don’t know anything about the candidates. But as your local news outlet, we want to help remedy that, both by providing news coverage and by giving the candidates a chance to speak to voters.

On our Election Central website, candidates in these races have a chance to share their reason for running for office as well as their opinions on issues germane to the governments they seek to serve.

We’ve notified the candidates about the site and asked them to respond to our questions, most by Monday. Early voting begins Thursday.

You can view Election Central from our home page, Daily-Chronicle.com, or just go directly to elections.Daily-Chronicle.com.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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