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A $45 billion public works plan and what does Illinois get? Deeper in debt.

Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, June 11, 2019  |  Editorial  |  Editorial Board

Capital Development Board, Capital Construction Plan (14)

Details of the state’s $45 billion capital spending plans are emerging days after the General Assembly passed the bill. Think: Much spending to come on public works and other projects, but a lot less consideration ahead of time into where the money would go.

 

This massive, once-a-decade spree — which Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign off on — is all over the map. Yes, literally. It will pay to rebuild roads (good), reconstruct bridges (good) and patch up crumbling schools (also good).

 

But unable to practice an ounce of spending discipline, Pritzker and lawmakers also permitted pickleball courts (bad), dog parks (bad) and bike paths (also bad).

 

Why the frown toward the sport of pickleball, furry dog friends and fancy bicycle routes? Because there is a role for state government to fund big-ticket projects, and there is a role for local taxpayers to pay for the fluff if they want it. The fluff adds up.

 

Inside Illinois lawmakers’ pork-barrel frenzy: Pickleball courts, dog parks and clout »

 

Oddball items are symptoms of the larger concern, however. Roughly half the $45 billion will come from borrowing. With Illinois facing serious financial strain and unable to pay existing bills, every borrowed dollar elected officials decide to spend adds to the burden on taxpayers. So every dollar spent on a bridge or road better be justified. Capital spending should be driven by the greatest impact and urgency.

 

That’s not what we see. We see a Springfield feeding frenzy. As Tribune reporters described it: “The plan was hastily put together, and it’s not yet clear where all the money will be spent. The 362-page bill contains lines with lump sums worth hundreds of millions of dollars that don’t list specific projects.”

 

We know advance work went into the bill. We get that not every aspect of a major statewide infrastructure plan can be debated and resolved ahead of passage. Even modest home improvement projects contain a surprise or two.

 

But reckless spending seems to be an Illinois specialty. No amount of debt, or the bad credit that results, restrains Illinois’ leaders from getting googly-eyed over spending. And it’s not a new phenomenon. During the eras of past governors, including James Thompson, George Ryan and Pat Quinn, the state went on bipartisan spending jags. We recall the baseball fields, ice rinks and a grant for an Irish marching band. The Jack Benny statue, stained-glass windows in a parking garage, a beef festival in Monmouth and planters outside a ritzy Chicago condo building.

 

As in years past, Pritzker and legislative leaders appear to have picked a number — in this case $45 billion — and then worked backward to stuff items into the grocery cart. That includes $50 million for the Illinois Arts Council, overseen by House Speaker Michael Madigan’s wife. In that tranche: $1.5 million for an AIDS garden, $50,000 for a Jewish museum renovation, $370,000 for the Inner City Muslim Action Network and millions more in unexplained line items.

 

Individual projects, from a road repair to a museum fix-up, may be valid, and necessary. But spending taxpayer money and borrowing against it should be an agonizing exercise. Which investments are must-dos? Which projects need government help to fill a gap vs. those that can be funded by the private sector? Who needs to be told, “Sorry, no”?

 

Instead, taxpayers got presented after the fact with legislation. Funding will come from a doubling of the state gasoline tax starting July 1, parking taxes, increased license plate fees, expanded gambling, sports betting and this: More than $20 billion in borrowing.

 

Illinois taxpayers deserve more accountability from their elected leaders. This bill should have been downsized significantly. It wasn’t.

 

Anyone for pickleball?