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A Penny's Worth of Wisdom

The state's sums fail to add up—again

Illinois Times

July 16, 1992

Perhaps the fundamental obstacle to better state government in Illinois is an obdurate public that demands services for themselves but expects everyone else—who?—to pay for them. Jim Edgar was more responsible than most in his budgeting, and I took care in this piece to note that budgets must be approved by legislators, and even a responsible governor must accept some bad ideas to get the few good ones approved. State budgets under both political parties thus lie about costs, foist as much of the tax burden as they can onto politically weak citizens, and, most ruinously, under-invest in ways that dooms their successors to the same fate.


The state's fiscal pain sometimes leads to good results, like the toothache that finally drives the procrastinator to the dentist. (The Department of Commerce and Community Affairs is a good example of what happens when government doesn't floss regularly.)


Generally, however, the new [State of Illinois] budget is a deplorable muddle. The proposals initially submitted by Gov. Jim "James" Edgar were praiseworthy as far as they went, apart from his prudish attitude toward taxes. The budget as adopted by the General Assembly alas was a seminar in subterfuge—"balanced" only by delaying a pension pay-in here, cheating on health insurance there. For years Republicans complained that lawmakers ought to budget government the way a family budgets a household. This our legislators have done. When the members tried to shift $21 million in pension funds it was like stealing nickels from Junior's piggy bank until payday.


The old phrase, "penny wise and pound-foolish" rather over-values the wisdom that the General Assembly put into this document. The small change saved by cutting two days off the Illinois State Fair schedule or reducing the hours at the Dana-Thomas House may actually cost the state money in lost tourism; meanwhile, money for the State Board of Education—Illinois' Pentagon, which builds increasingly expensive systems that work decreasingly well—was actually increased.


The legislators had no appetite for issues bigger than they are, so the larger questions about Illinois's ways of getting and spending were left unexamined. To be sure, the General Assembly faces constraints on its budget-making powers. Some obvious and sensible reforms are constitutionally problematic, such as banning legislators from Springfield in years not divisible by four. And big chunks of the budget must go to pay for massively expensive health programs such as Medicaid mandated by a Congress that has applied the EC's agricultural principles to medical care, warehousing commodities no one wants or needs (in this case old people) at enormous costs in subsidies.


The real constraint on the process is the political cowardice of the members. The exercise of this cowardice is, of course, why they are sent to Springfield in the first place. Voters do not expect lawmakers to craft a budget that will provide prudently for needed services to all the state's people, but to protect their constituents' individual or class advantages against the depredations of other individuals and classes.


As was noted by virtually every commentator, the slapped-together budget was adopted because this is an election year, and no ambitious lawmaker wants to go back home and have to explain that he did the right thing in Springfield. The middle class is impatient with spending for welfare, the public health, crime prevention, jails, or jobs training, since they don't need them. They do not countenance their elimination, however. Some social spending is needed to keep the poor and the criminals from becoming stroppy; the trick for a legislator is balancing a budget at that precise point at which middle-class anxiety about the have-nots equals middle-class anger over having to pay taxes.


Certainly since the late 1970s, the purpose of state government has been to conceal from its citizens the fact that they are going broke. This ambitious effort to preserve a tattered middle-class lifestyle in the face of world competition, inflation, and economic decline is expensive, and it has required our lawmakers to come up with ways to spend money without seeming to.


Consider the unbudgeted subsidies that flow to the middle class via the Illinois income tax system. State tax is paid on one's adjusted gross income as shown on federal tax returns. This means that income deducted from federal taxes also is exempt from Illinois income tax. A couple buying a $235,000 house in one of the state's posher suburbs with a standard 30-year mortgage charging 8.5 percent interest is thus able to reduce their Illinois taxable income by $20,000 by deducting their mortgage interest.


This reduction in turn reduces their Illinois income tax by $600. It is arguable whether a $600 a year subsidy is significant to a couple able to afford nearly a quarter-mill on a house, but that lost revenue might be useful to some of the many thousands of working class Illinoisans who are forced to pay a third, even half their monthly income on rent.


Employer-provided pensions and health benefits are also exempt from federal income taxes for those taxpayers (increasingly, upper-income types) who itemize. Virtually every working person receives such a subsidy, if only because an employer's contribution to the Social Security account of an employee is not considered income. As Social Security taxes have risen, so has the value of the exemption, and the cost to Illinois tax collectors; the employer contribution for a worker earning $50,000 a year gives the latter an additional $3,825 in income.


Nationwide, only about half of all workers enjoy employer-paid pensions, but their cost is subsidized by all taxpayers; since those pension contributions are not subject to the federal income tax, the resulting lost revenues must either be made up in other taxes, or be replaced by borrowed money whose interest is likewise borne by all taxpayers. Like home mortgage interest deductions, the amounts are not insignificant, and tend to rise disproportionately with income.


To the extent that Illinois's income tax system is pegged to the federal one, the former can be only as fair as the latter, which isn't very. From 1977 to the present the effective tax rates for bottom-end taxpayers rose nearly a third, while those for the upper end dropped by nearly a quarter.


It is often complained that Illinois has lost control of its budget as a result of mandated federal programs and so on. It is just as true that the state has lost control of—or more accurately, surrendered control of—its income as well. Decisions about equity, subsidy, and progressivity that affect who gets public funds and why in Illinois are made by Congress. This indisputably makes the state's revenue system easier to administer; a state that puts efficiency over fairness probably is just as well off to leave such decisions to someone else. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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