Christopher Willis of the Associated Press does some good digging into the state budget passed by the General Assembly last May, uncovering a few state grants Democratic lawmakers slipped in for pet local projects.
But the headline “Special grants helped state Democrats pass budget” could be a bit misleading. As Willis points out, grants are the exception in the state budget, and such pet spending has especially decreased since the General Assembly impeached Rod Blagojevich as governor in January 2009.
Unlike the in the federal government, clear examples of state taxpayer money used to satisfy a specific lawmaker or region are few and far between.
Go to Washington, D.C. and you will find a cottage industry of watchdog groups, like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Project On Government Oversight, that document the “pork-barrel spending” that persists despite a moratorium on legislative earmarks. Unlike Springfield, the federal government is not required to pass a budget that balances spending and revenue, so money for one project does not necessarily mean cuts for another project or increased taxes.
The farm bill, a version of which passed the U.S. Senate last week, is full of instances where individual lawmakers protect the divvying up of dubious farm subsidies. For example, despite an evident lack of arable land, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $2.2 million to give 734 Chicagoans farms subsidies in 2010.
The greatest source of earmark-like spending is arguably the Department of Defense where lawmakers protect funding for some Cold War weapons systems that even the Pentagon wants to get rid of. Programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Osprey Helicopter endure despite cost overruns and a questionable purpose, because they mean jobs in individual Congressional districts.
Go back to the state level, meanwhile, and the biggest grant uncovered by Willis is $2 million to the Chicagoland Regional College Program. The program provides college financial assistance for students with part-time jobs at UPS. How this grant slipped into the budget deserves scrutiny, but there are bigger budget problems in Illinois.
The Prairie State’s budget problems are caused almost entirely by long-term spending and revenue problems. Democratic and Republican leaders and the Chicago Civic Federation think tank view it as an issue of underfunded public employee pensions and Medicaid obligations. Progressive groups, like the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, say the real problem is an outmoded way of generating revenue.
All sides, though, concede that the problems are systemic. Weeding out a few dubious projects then, unfortunately, does little to alleviate the state’s perpetual fiscal crisis.