By Jim Broadway, Publisher of the State School News Service - October 27, 2009
The late Paul Simon submitted to more than 600 unstructured town meetings over his long career. He would invite the audience to ask their questions and then would stay at the microphone until he had answered them all, no matter how long it took. Questions about taxes came up at most meetings. His answers would relate to the specific context of the moment, but he also added a context-setting parable of his own.
He would tell of the letter he received from a constituent soon after he was first sworn in as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives in 1955. The citizen called upon him to support a long list of demands - better roads, better schools, safer workplaces, services for senior citizens and veterans, lower crime rates, a cleaner environment - the man had a dozen such demands for state action on all fronts.
His 13th demand was for lower taxes.
Simon would not be surprised at poll results reported last week by the Public Policy Institute that bears his name at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, results suggesting public attitudes haven't changed much in the last half-century. We pretty much want the state to continue, or even to increase, funding for most services generally considered the state's responsibility - but we also oppose raising taxes to pay for all those things.
He might have been disheartened by such an unrealistic set of public expectations, but he would not have been surprised because in the last couple of decades of his life he witnessed the primary cause of such citizen short-sightedness. In fact, he wrote a book about it. It is entitled, Our Culture of Pandering.
Rather than using town meetings or political campaigns as "teachable moments," as Paul did, today's "leaders" fill that space with pander, denigrating government generally and doing their best to say what they think people want to hear. People generally want to hear the truth. That's why Simon drew support even from those who disagreed with him. But when truth is not on the menu, people will vote for the guy who tells the most appealing lies.
Folks are lining up this week in Springfield for a chance to win that very trophy.
A contender might be Comptroller Dan Hynes, candidate for governor on the Democrat side. Hynes has built a reputation for honesty and dedicated public service. He and Simon were good friends. Simon would have endorsed him in the 2004 primary for the U.S. Senate if a dynamic young man named Barack Obama had not surfaced. But he surely would have seen Hynes' recent abandonment of his own upright political persona as disappointing.
Some consultant who has Hynes' ear must have reminded him that "politics ain't beanbag" and advised him that to achieve victory on February 2 he must step out of character and vilify his opponent, incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, and in particular he must mislead the public about Quinn's approach to the key issue of the campaign - which is (taking us back to the top of this commentary) how to generate the revenue to pay for state programs and services.
Both Hynes and Quinn support higher taxes. Hynes' plan is to seek a constitutional amendment for a graduated tax to raise the rate only on folks with taxable incomes over $200,000 per year. The flaws in his plan include: (1) It focuses the burden narrowly on just the most affluent 3% of citizens; (2) it requires voter approval in 2010, which is by no means a certainty; (3) it could not take effect until FY 2012 at the earliest. There are many other flaws.
Hynes' approach, rather than justifying his own proposal, is to denigrate Quinn and mislead the public about the governor's proposal. Quinn's proposal is to raise the personal income tax rate to 4.5% and to triple the value of dependent deductions from the current $2,000 to $6,000. Hynes ignores the exemption increase Quinn proposes and simply describes Quinn's tax plan as a "50% across-the-board" income tax increase on everyone.
Hynes has a "calculator" on his web site to further this misleading statement. For example, if your family of four has an income of $60,000, Hynes' calculator tells you that your tax bill under his plan would remain at $1,560 but would increase under Quinn's proposal to $2,340 (a 50% increase). But if Quinn's proposed increase in dependent deductions is included in the calculation, that family's tax bill would be $1,620 (a mere $60 hike).
Hynes further departs from his own established political character by persistently engaging in personal attacks on Quinn, suggesting he is running for "governor of 'Fantasy Island'" and other such nonsense.
Quinn has not yet responded in kind. He is vulnerable to legitimate criticism. He has, for example, been nudged by legislative leaders into a position of accepting a more regressive tax structure than he has proposed. In this and in other respects he may be seen as too willing to compromise, not strong enough in his populist principles. And he's been guilty of true political malpractice in the past.
Sometime back, we observed that either of these candidates would represent a vast improvement over Quinn's predecessor (current reality TV personality Rod Blagojevich), but also that neither seemed particularly inspiring. We still believe those things. We also predicted however that we would see a campaign relatively free of outright falsehoods and focused instead on issues of honest disagreement. This shows you not to have too much faith in our opinions.
Fortunately, Hynes and Quinn will not be our only choices for governor in 2010.
One of the two is certain to become the Democrat nominee on February 2. Rich Whitney of Carbondale will be the Green Party nominee for the second time. There will also be a Republican - the Institute's survey on candidates suggests that nomination is up for grabs - and a few throw-aways representing parties not officially established in Illinois. The nominees will not face off until November 2 of 2010. There will be plenty of time for you to decide.
Getting back to the Institute's survey on taxes and services, it is worth noting that respondents were strongest in their opposition to state reductions in funding for public schools. (Review response calculations starting on Page 4.) They opposed all suggested revenue ideas, but their opposition to expanding the base of the sales tax to include commonly taxed services dramatically declined from last year. Their relatively mild opposition to expanded gambling increased since 2008. They definitely do not want state to put its assets (the Lottery, toll roads, public facilities) up for sale to balance the budget.
Here's a somewhat stunning response: Nearly 58% of respondents believe they receive a "fair" to "excellent" value "in terms of services for taxes you pay to the federal government," but barely half would say the same about their return on "tax dollars paid to the state." They like Washington better than they like Springfield. Obama effect?
Candidates have until November 2 to file petitions. At that time, we will know pretty well who is running for what next year. As is said every even-numbered year - but still always has a ring of truth about it - the elections of 2010 may decide the most profound political questions in the history of our democracy. We'll be paying attention to them, particularly with regard to their impact on public education, and we will encourage you to do so as well.
Remembering Sen. Paul Wellstone: Sunday was the seventh anniversary of the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) in a tragic airplane crash. We remember Sen. Wellstone for his compassion, intelligence and willingness to stand alone on principle. He was in many ways a public service twin of Illinois' own last great statesman, Sen. Simon. Wellstone's warnings against an education system driven by high stakes testing predated the No Child Left Behind Act. His warnings were ignored in the enactment of NCLB, of course, and are being ignored by federal policymakers today. Ignored, however, does not have to mean forgotten. Advocates of education as a public service whose clients are the children should remember Wellstone by reviewing his wisdom.