The Illinois Senate in Springfield is abuzz on Wednesday morning as lawmakers new and old prepare for the inauguration ceremony that begins the next legislative session.
They’re dressed in their best — flowers in hand, spouses and kids in tow — smiling, posing for pictures and making small talk.
Inauguration day, whether it’s Springfield or Washington or Chicago’s City Hall, is one of those exhilarating time-honored traditions that remind even cynical political observers that our democracy is vibrant — and still the envy of the world — even when it malfunctions as badly as the Illinois General Assembly.
And that’s the rub. Because, as I watch the joyous participants on the Senate floor, a troubling image fills my mental screen: The final festivities on the Titanic before it hit the iceberg. And sank.
Illinois government is steaming toward a fiscal iceberg, and the ship of state easily could sink if our political captains don’t turn the wheel immediately.
I rode Amtrak to Springfield on Tuesday night for a series of meetings about an expanded BGA watchdog role in the crucible of state government. Outside the train station the Capitol dome is aglow from floodlights that make it visible from the prairie. Shadows fall across the Abraham Lincoln statue outside the east entrance.
As I walk to the hotel that bears Lincoln’s name, I pass the building where he practiced law, the Old State Capitol where he gave his famous "house divided" speech, the magnificent library and museum that commemorate him, and the house where he lived.
These landmarks — like the monuments on the Mall in Washington — recharge my patriotic batteries. But the warm feeling is quickly replaced by the dreadful reality of the present: Our great state is in freefall.
Two corrupt governors in jail; three accused lawmakers inaugurated with the class of 2013; $9 billion in unpaid bills owed to venders; and an unfunded pension liability that’s approaching $100 billion at a growth rate of $17 million a day.
Pensions eat up more than 20 percent of the state’s operating budget and the percentage grows by a billion dollars a year, crowding out more and more funding for schools and everything else.
The 67 percent tax increase approved by state lawmakers in 2011 brings in $7 billion a year, but it’s immediately gobbled up by ongoing obligations. It’s painful to watch.
And yet this week, in a "lame duck" session that included 35 exiting lawmakers who theoretically could have cast one final "tough" vote without fear of voter backlash, pension reform went nowhere.
There were bills to consider but no votes taken. Leaders met only at the last minute, leaving no time for serious negotiations. And worst of all, those leaders never led; they simply limped along. And whined. As the Land of Lincoln nears its "pension cliff."
The inaugural celebrations go on all day — for 177 festive lawmakers who get full-time pay and generous benefits for part-time jobs — but I duck out to finish my BGA business and catch the night train back to Chicago.
The dome atop the Capitol is once again aglow, impressive as ever. But the Lincoln statue looks different. Abe’s shoulders seem to be sagging, as if to say with body language: "I saved the nation. Are there any leaders capable of saving my state?"
Off in the distance I imagine the iceberg closing in from the prairie as I ask myself the same question.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at 312-386-9097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.