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Putting election spending into perspective

State Journal Register

Thursday, April 20, 2017  |  Editorial  |  The State Journal-Register Editorial Board

Election Issues (not candidates) (39)

There is no disputing that residents — or candidates themselves — have the right to give money to politicians they feel can make a difference. But it’s a bit galling that the millions being poured into the 2018 Illinois gubernatorial campaign will primarily be spent on attacking opponents, while so many languish in month 22 of the hostage situation that is the state budget impasse.

The seven men who have said they intend to run for governor next year have collectively already amassed at least $60 million for the campaign, according to reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner easily leads the pack, as he donated $50 million to his campaign, although just last week J.B. Pritzker donated $7 million of his own money to his attempt to win the office. Given that the campaign contribution caps have been lifted, that amount is only going to get obscenely higher.

While the blame-game will continue into what will seem like infinity (November 2018 is a long ways away), businesses, universities and social service agencies will continue to wither, since it appears solutions to the budget impasse won’t be a priority until after this election.

Granted, $60 million isn’t even a drop in the bucket of Illinois’ coffers: It’s only 0.17 percent of the roughly $33.7 billion the state is expected to take in during the fiscal year. The stack of unpaid bills was at $13.4 billion Tuesday, with a deficit of roughly $5 billion that grows by about $11 million every day there isn’t a budget; $60 million wouldn’t solve any problems.

But it gives a dose of perspective when you think of what else that money could be used for. That $60 million could:

* Send 3,793 students to the University of Illinois at Springfield, where College Illinois said the average tuition/fees this year was $15,817. This would pay for a fourth of the estimated 16,000 students who leave Illinois to attend college elsewhere to stay here.

* Pay the full foundation level of $6,119 (instead of prorating as has happened for several years) for 9,805 K-12 students. That would provide full funding for about 65 percent of the roughly 15,000 students enrolled in Springfield District 186.

* Provide two meals a day, for 250 serving days during the year, to 15,889 seniors. Age Options says 22,000 seniors outside of Chicago have lost access to services like home-delivered meals, transportation and help accessing resources.

* Provide Redeploy Illinois services for 10,900 eligible juveniles in lieu of incarceration. In less than two years time, 43 out of 46 counties participating in Redeploy Illinois have lost access to programming; while the average per capita cost to serve a youth in Redeploy Illinois in fiscal year 2015 was $5,502, it costs $111,000 to incarcerate one youth in the Department of Juvenile Justice.

* Award 21,567 MAP Grants, based on the fiscal year 2015 average award of $2,782. Reminder: About 130,000 students are waiting for MAP grants this year.

* Pay one month of child care for 118,570 children so their parents can go to work and make ends meet, or go to school and become self-sufficient.

* Beef up funding for Small Business Development Centers, which assist start-up and existing small businesses. There are 27 funded centers for 2017, down from 35 in 2016. Crain’s Chicago estimated it costs about $200,000 to operate one center; how about giving $2 million each to 30 centers spread throughout the state and see what innovation emerges?

We’re not suggesting these campaign donations be diverted to these causes. But it’s worth taking a moment to point out the millions that will be spent in an election that’s still 18 months away will buy a whole of talk — talk likely to involve a lot of nasty finger-pointing that will do nothing to fix our broken state.

What should be talked about is passing a budget and starting to reverse course on the financially shaky path that Illinois elected officials, through their inaction, insist we continue to follow. Let’s hope candidates spend some of that money talking about constructive actions that will result in fiscally firmer footing for Illinois.