By: Mark Glennon*
It really wouldn’t be that hard to change the narrative in Illinois from fictional to real. If reporters would simply ask they’d receive, or if they didn’t receive they could expose the politicians who have no answers. But they don’t ask.
Political reporting on the state and local fiscal crises in Illinois remains like classical theater: part tragedy, part farce and entirely fiction.
Try Googling “Rauner and Madigan,” “Rauner and Rahm” or anything similar. Most of what you’ll find is little more than a stenographer’s report on name-calling and spin. Headlines like these predominate:
- “Rauner says Emanuel is ‘biggest disappointment of his time as governor.’
- “Emanuel calls governor ’emperor without clothes.'”
- “Rauner calls Madigan ‘disingenuous.'”
- “Madigan accuses Rauner of ‘trying to change history.'”
- “Rahm and Rauner’s personal war of words.”
- “Rauner, Madigan offer new buzzword on impasse.”
- “Rauner, Emanuel Take Credit For Job Project, Blame Each For School Funding.”
Who gives a damn?
Where are headlines like, “A side-by-side comparison of Rauner’s and Madigan’s five-year revenue and spending hopes”? Or, “Rahm explains why actual financial statements show huge city losses while his budgets show balance.” Or, “Candidates for governor specify how much new revenue Illinois needs.”
You won’t find them because no reporter asks what’s needed, so Illinoisans go blindly to the polls.
Reporters could start with Governor Rauner. His biggest failure is not laying out a credible, long term plan to put the state on a sustainable path. Shame on him for not offering one, but shame on reporters for not insisting on one. The same certainly goes for Rauner’s critics.
Next would be every other candidate for governor. Ask them how much revenue would come from a progressive income tax and how much more top brackets would pay. Ask how much new revenue they think the state needs to raise. Those things are key because honest answers would expose with certainty that survivable tax increases won’t be sufficient.
Ask Rahm what Chicago’s pension contributions will be in five years under the can-kicking legislation he has sought, and how the city would pay them. That’s when full contributions would kick in.
And ask them all why none of them is talking about a solution for the $130 billion in unfunded pensions and $50 billion in unfunded healthcare liabilities for retirees (which would not be reduced materially under any proposals now floating around).
Answers to those questions and similar ones are critical to the death spiral we’re in, yet nobody has a clue to the answers. The politicians will duck the questions, but the press must get insistent — they have to demand specifics and rip the face off anybody who offers only the usual, bland generalities.
Part of the problem is that political reporters are, well, political reporters. They cover politics — who is saying what about whom, so-and-so’s new ad, who’s up in the polls, how much money they’ve raised, etc. Those are important matters, but they shouldn’t entirely crowd out the most basic policy questions.
They’re not all bad, but rays of light are few. Chicago Sun-Times reporters cover Chicago financial issues well and its investigative reporters turn up plenty of graft. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board is among the few who understand the depth of the problems we face. The Bond Buyer gets the facts right, though it’s written for the narrow-minded municipal bond industry. The Illinois News Network is now doing a nice job with straight-up, objective reporting on government news.
Another election season is underway. Will challengers for governor be asked in three different debates whether they would live in the Governor’s Mansion, as Rauner was in the last cycle? Will a candidate who puts ketchup on hotdogs again make the headlines? Will name-calling and spin perpetually substitute for news?
Reporters must be more than stenographers writing down what politicians say, or we’ll sink further into darkness.
Ask the questions. It’s really not that hard.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints. Opinions expressed are his own.