High Drama, Low Comedy in Illinois Tax Follies

Barack Obama was wrong when he said that our problem is that we don't treat one another with enough respect. The problem is that we don't laugh enough at politics and politicians.

For example, in the midst of tragedy and pathos, we witnessed the weird spectacle of the president of the United States speaking before 20,000 people dressed, with North Korean-like similitude, in blue T-Shirts, cheering, whooping it up, and otherwise turning what should have been a sad occasion into a late-night monologue joke. The juxtaposition between solemnity and raucousness is the stuff of stand-up comedy -- despite the president's heartfelt sentiments and the unspeakable tragedy of lost lives and wounded souls.

The fact is, we treat these politicians and the whole process as if it were a religion. This breeds humorlessness among the citizenry, which leads to a decidedly unfunny political climate where we are forced to take goofballs like Joe Biden and Sarah Palin seriously. What passes for humor from both sides is the kind of ill-tempered, mean-spirited, pulling-the-wings-off-flies jocosity you grow out of when you hit puberty.

That's why before I go to bed at night, I hit my knees and thank God I live in Illinois.

You people who live in good government states like Minnesota and Vermont really don't know what you're missing. You might have the occasional stray dog who wanders off the straight and narrow, dipping their greedy paws into the public purse, or perhaps being a little too generous to their friends and political supporters. Politics, like any human endeavor, has more than its share of charlatans, grave robbers, and amoral amoebas who were born with a prison number tattooed across their forehead. No matter how squeaky clean you try and make your local governments, these types always seem to make an appearance now and again just to remind us all of the moral frailty of our species.

But really, how entertaining is that kind of government? Once you start taking politicians too seriously, they start taking themselves too seriously and then you're in trouble. A politician who takes himself too seriously actually believes they can solve the problems of the world by spending just a little bit more money that isn't theirs. They start to believe their own campaign rhetoric about how wonderful they are and before you know it, your state is up to its eyeballs in debt.

Illinois has the most fascinating, the most colorful, the most entertaining politicians in the land, which makes following the goings on in Springfield akin to watching a combination Demolition Derby and cockroach race. Of course, we still get politicians who spend the state into penury, but at least we're disabused of the notion that any high ideals or uplifting principles are at work. It is a rotten-to-the-core, cynical, sybaritic exercise in politics for fun and profit and it was on full display last week. A lame duck session of the Illinois legislature passed a gargantuan tax increase on individuals and businesses, while borrowing another $4 billion to seed the gold-plated retirements of unionized state workers.

It was done just minutes before the newly elected senators and representatives were to be sworn in, as high drama, low comedy, and strong-armed politics combined to bring more misery to Illinois' long-put-upon taxpayers.

The individual income tax rate soared from 3% to 5% -- a 67% increase, while the business tax rate climbed from 4.8% to a whopping 7%. This is supposed to raise $6.8 billion over the next year to help bring down an expected $15 billion deficit. A separate measure to allow the state to borrow another $8 billion to pay bills that were due in 2009 and early 2010 was defeated. In short, if you supplied the state with Christmas decorations in 2009, you will probably still be waiting for your check after Santa Claus is dead and buried.

Not a single Republican voted for the tax increase, which might be encouraging if you forget all the budgetary shenanigans played by the GOP while they were in power -- that is, until the taxpayers were sickened by corruption and mismanagement and threw them out in 2002. We are an equal opportunity state for graft -- a fact that is overshadowed at times by the Chicago machine's prominence in national politics.

Governor Pat "Four-County" Quinn -- so called because he won only four counties out of 102 in the November election -- wheeled and dealed, and then wheedled some more, and when all was said and done got barely enough Democrats to vote for a tax increase twice the size of the one that he promised he would work for during the campaign. The margin was razor thin -- three votes in the House and one measly vote in the Senate.

But even great victories require sacrifices. In this case, the taxpayers not only got whopped over the head by a deficit reducing tax bill, they got a swift kick in the rear to boot because, not surprisingly, the Democrats in the legislature cannot keep their grubby hands off this mountain of cash they just purloined from Illinois citizens. Four-County Quinn made a deal with black politicians to spend $1 billion of that money "for the children" (schools) over the next 5 years. In addition, the Democratic pols were patting themselves on the back for "reining in spending" as they call it, allowing "only" a 2% increase in the state budget every year.

"We’re really trying to handcuff ourselves and the governor in our spending,” said Senate President John Cullerton. If so, a two-year-old mentally challenged chimpanzee could escape. It is doubtful that even an A&E Intervention could make these addicts realize just how far gone they are if they are going to remain unserious about curing the fiscal problems that bedevil the state.

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” said state Senator David Miller. A few hours later, Miller seemed to eat those words when he collapsed in a heap on the chamber floor in the wee small hours of the morning. Thankfully, he had only fainted and made a full recovery, but that kind of karma seems to plague Illinois pols all the time.

As for low comedy, there is the case of Kathy Moore, wife of a powerful real estate lawyer from Chicago, who played a large role in the passage of the tax increase. A popular state representative had been elected to the Cook County Board and Moore was asked to fill out the remainder of his term in the Illinois House. Ordinarily, you might expect the new representative elected in November to take up those duties. Alas, the new state representative -- Ann Williams -- was unreliable when it came to voting for the tax increase so, after some strong-armed tactics by local Dems, Williams decided to retreat and Moore was chosen as caretaker.

Moore was a political neophyte who didn't know anything about politics or the issues she would be voting on. “[T]hey tell me what (voting) button to push and I push it,” said Mrs. Moore. This is the kind of representative House Speaker Michael Madigan loves, and, sure enough, Moore fulfilled her duty and is now back home having done her part to stick it to her neighbors.

The Honorable Mr. Four-County was last seen backslapping and shaking the hands of his departing Democrats on the Senate floor, actually congratulating the hacks who had just given Illinois businesses and citizens absolutely nothing to be happy about. The incongruity of the situation was best summed up by Governor Mitch Daniels of neighboring Indiana, who remarked, "It’s like living next door to ‘The Simpsons’ … you know the dysfunctional family down the block?”

Daniels is licking his chops as he prepares to raid his dysfunctional neighbor in the manner of a Viking swooping down on English monasteries. The targets are Illinois businesses in border counties that might be tempted to jump to Indiana where taxes are far lower and the state government is reasonably well run and mostly honest. The same strategy is being employed by other border state governors who probably can't believe their good fortune. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri all have far lower tax rates and are in reasonably good fiscal shape.

Whether there will be a mass exodus as has happened in California, thus further eroding the tax base and supplying less revenue than the Democrats are counting on, remains to be seen. As long as the Democrats fail to address their spending addiction, the chances are good that more and more individuals and businesses will vote with their feet and move to friendlier climes where politics may be boring but politicians exercise a modicum of restraint in spending the taxpayers' coin.