In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift writes about wars that broke out on Lilliput between Big-Endians and Little-Endians—factions who felt so strongly about where to crack their morning eggs that they took up arms to prove they were right.

Springfield seems filled with Lilliputian politicians these days—people small in political stature who can’t get their jobs done. And the Springiput version of the egg wars boils to this mulish question: “When is the legislature going to produce a revenue estimate?”

Rarely has a controversy of such little consequence blocked the path toward fixing a problem so great.

Illinois is in a distraught fiscal condition. The state, still smarting from nearly two years without an official budget before fiscal 2018 began, is groaning under an $8.4 billion backlog of unpaid bills, a nearly $15 billion budget deficit last year, $129 billion in pension underfunding—and a run-to-the-border depopulation that is costing the treasury every day.

No wonder Gov. Rauner wants to take $1.3 billion in state teacher pension costs and shift the burden to local school districts. If he can pull that off—and virtually no one seriously thinks he will—the governor figures he could deliver a $350 million surplus in the next fiscal year.

But without the cost shift, it’s looking like about $1 billion in red ink this coming fiscal year.

With troubles like this, people might expect Gov. Rauner and the legislative leaders, including arch-nemesis House Speaker Mike Madigan, to engage in heated discussion about how to fix the mess.

People might expect that, I should say, if they had just dropped in from Lilliput. But if they’ve watched Springfield in recent years, they’re probably expecting pretty much what we’re getting: A whole lot of nothing.

No one in leadership has any idea how to fix the state’s fiscal problems. Not the Republican Governor. Not the Democratic legislative leaders. Not the Republican legislative leaders. Not J.B. Pritzker, the Democrat who wants to be governor.

But they can’t exactly call press conferences to admit they have no ideas.Instead, they resort to the first refuge of political posers: They argue about who is breaking the rules.

Illinois law requires the legislature during budgeting to estimate of the next year’s revenues. And if you believe the Illinois Constitution—which demands a balanced budget—Illinois shouldn’t spend a penny more than it takes in.

But this is Illinois, where compliance is optional. The Democrat-controlled legislature hasn’t delivered a revenue estimate in at least five years. And the Republicans, instead of offering politically viable solutions, whimper about the Democrat unwillingness to provide a revenue number.

Gov. Rauner’s office did it just this week. Rauner surely must know he is going nowhere with his dream of balancing the budget despite no new taxes and a property tax reduction. But rather than face facts, and present viable ideas, he had a spokeswoman repeat a recent mantra: “Where is the revenue estimate?”

Madigan isn’t helping either. Instead of delivering, he keeps playing for time. He has his own goal in mind: the annual end-of-session sprint when the sausage fries and the people pay the bills.

It’s a news reel that winds in the same loop year after year. In 2017, the Republicans even brought Attorney General Lisa Madigan into the fight: Asking her to sue the legislature, which is run by House Speaker Mike Madigan, pitting daughter against father in the fight to force a number from the man.

Oh, the drama.

For her part, Madigan won’t be drawn in. In response to a lawsuit seeking to force her to intervene, she is pushing back. The question is political, not legal, Madigan argues in court papers. The legislature needs to work it out with the Governor, the AG filing says.

Laurence Msall, president of the budget watchdog Civic Federation, has seen such Big-Endian standoffs before. In Illinois, anyway. In other states, this just doesn’t happen. The politicians get their jobs done.

“We do a lot of things wrong in Illinois,” Msall said. “That’s how you get the worst-rated pension fund in the country. That’s what happens when you think the laws of fiscal responsibility don’t apply to us.”

People say you need to crack some eggs in order to make an omelet. Something has to give in order to get something good.

In Springiput these days, no one is cracking that first egg. Instead, they argue about big end and little end—while the taxpayers just boil.

David Greising

David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative...