Editorial: Taxes, Jobs, and Leadership: Three Connected Southern Illinois Conundrums

In one of his commentaries for WSIU-FM, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon discussed how polling had dama
Chris Wissmann


In one of his commentaries for WSIU-FM, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon discussed how polling had damaged the American political system. He even asked listeners to politely decline if they received a phone call from a pollster.

He explained his feelings in an essay compiled in The Essential Paul Simon: Timeless Lessons for Today’s Politics, writing, “Far too many in both political parties tell us over and over what we want to hear, what the latest polls suggest is popular.... There has always been this tendency to pander, but polling has made it into a science.”

Simon then went on to quote from his book Our Culture of Pandering: “We have spawned ‘leadership’ that does not lead, that panders to our whims rather than telling us the truth, that follows the crowd rather than challenging us, that weakens us rather than strengthening us. It is easy to go downhill, and we are now following that easy path. Pandering is not illegal, but it is immoral. It is doing the convenient when the right course demands inconvenience and courage.”

A recent Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, ahem, poll, illustrates Simon’s points. To summarize, registered voters by more than a two-to-one margin oppose extending the temporary income-tax increase passed in 2011. At the same time, according to a Simon Institute press release, “Voters oppose raising the state sales tax or taxing retirement income to raise money to fix the state’s chronic budget deficits.... The voters of Illinois like and support major governmental programs and services and oppose making cuts to those programs.”

In nearly every budget category— primary and university education, public safety, environment, and aid to the poor and disabled— voters don’t want to cut spending. (The exception is for state pensions, but— and this is too complicated an issue with which to deal in this space— the Illinois constitution probably forbids such benefit reductions.)

Voters, in other words, want all the advantages associated with state spending, but they want it all for free.

Unfortunately, Illinois isn’t Fantasy Land. And state-government candidates who pander to their constituents instead of telling them the truth— we either need to pay for these programs through taxation or we need to end them— will send Illinois sliding even deeper into the serious fiscal hole in which it’s mired.

What renders such political gutlessness even more remarkable: Nearly all of the state’s legislators have created such carefully gerrymandered districts that they could only lose a reelection bid when facing felony charges. Even then, most could still probably fend off challengers.

Interestingly, Bill Kilquist, the Democratic nominee for state representative in District 115, conducted a far less-scientific poll than the Simon Institute’s. As Kilquist told WSIU-FM on March 12, voters he met during his primary campaign said that the top two issues they faced were jobs and taxes— presumably too few of the former and too many of the latter.

In Southern Illinois, the connection between jobs and taxes should be obvious even to the most selectively deaf, logic-proof teabagger. From SIU to local schools, from state parks to national forests and wildlife refuges, from law enforcement and prisons to social-work agencies, a huge percentage of jobs in Southern Illinois are government jobs paid for by taxes.

Even nominally private-sector jobs— road construction, for example, and social work— would not exist without direct government funding. Many seemingly less government-dependent employers— like Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, or even Kroger and Schnucks— would vanish overnight without the seven-thousand-plus government employees at SIU who they serve.

No private-sector company imaginable, and no combination of private-sector companies that Southern Illinois could realistically nurture or attract, would possibly make up the difference caused by cutbacks in state spending when so many local jobs depend directly or indirectly on government expenditures. In other words, reduce taxes and the jobs that taxes make possible would vanish, and unemployment in Southern Illinois could rival Great Depression levels.

Local state representatives and senators could probably win elections, maybe even hold on to their seats for life, and easily at that, by espousing the opposite, economic-libertarian ideology. But they would consign Southern Illinois to permanent third-world status.

Instead of pandering, local candidates would do well to provide the leadership that Paul Simon bemoaned was missing from American politics, damn the polls, and convince voters of the righteous course of action. In this case, it means persuading constituents that their jobs depend on the taxes they pay. That’s not an easy sell, but candidates who can do so will come by employment security the honest way, and do lasting good to their constituents in the process.