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Pension debacle proves it's time to tax legislators for filing bills

Add Illinois – especially its northernmost counties – to the list of groups that lost big in Tuesday's recall election in Wisconsin.

The voters' decision to allow Gov. Scott Walker to finish out his term sent a loud and clear message to Illinois businesses chafing under the state's anti-business, high-tax, high-regulation climate: Walker's reforms are not going anywhere.

The message from the Land of Cheese to employers in the Land of Corruption is simple: The climate is fine. Come on over.

The recall vote took place five days after Illinois lawmakers ended the spring session without a plan to keep the state's $86 billion unfunded pension liability from, one day soon, devouring the state budget.

I've seen a lot of 10th-inning analysis and general navel-gazing regarding why our lawmakers dropped the ball yet again on pensions. But no one has gotten the real reason right, which is surprising because it's so amazingly simple:

We would have had pension reform this session if our legislators didn't waste all their time fretting over Drano attacks, recycling plastic bags and bullying.

Now granted, King Madigan the First has his reasons for waiting until the 11th hour to work on pension reform – it's easier to ram things through at the last minute, hidden in a shell bill so regular folks like you and me can't review them until it's too late. But lawmakers always seem to do everything but try to move pension reform forward.

They have more important (cough) things on their legislative session bucket list.

Limiting the sale of drain cleaners to combat the non-epidemic of acid attacks? Check. Filing bills to fix the original drain cleaner bill because no one understood it, not even the lawmakers who approved it? Check. Taxing strippers? Check.

Pension reform? No can do – we have to give drivers the legal right to meat they run over. Imposing an austerity budget so the state is no longer six months delinquent on payments for our most vulnerable citizens? Maybe later – we have to thwart evildoers who steal plastic milk crates.

And of course, as I like to point out, our lawmakers always made time to draft bills curtailing our open-government laws so people like me have a harder time keeping an eye on state and local governments taxing us head-first into the abyss.

(If you'll allow me the aside, it must be a real comfort to the 57 people who will lose their jobs with the closing of Family Service and Community Mental Health Center – which closed in part because Deadbeat Illinois owes it $850,000 – that any opossum they run over on the way back from the unemployment office is theirs if they have the right permit and it's opossum season. And hey, they can still make money selling any empty milk crates they have laying around, because the bill requiring people to show proof of ownership is stuck in committee.)

Far be it from me to grouse about a problem without presenting a solution. It's time for a brave lawmaker or two to introduce my Nanny State Implementation Act.

I blogged back in February that Illinois needs a bill that taxes lawmakers for submitting legislation the same way we have to pay to file court documents or apply for licenses. Under my proposal, each legislator gets three free bills a year, but after that they have to pay a filing fee of $500 per bill. The fee, which would increase every year by the rate of inflation, would double to $1,000 for bills imposing unfunded mandates, and quadruple to $2,000 for bills increasing state spending without an offset.

With more than 10,100 bills before the General Assembly as of today (yes, you read it right – 10,100), that's more than $4.5 million in revenue that could be generated by our elected busybodies, and that's assuming that no bills raise spending or impose unfunded mandates.

My thinking when I presented the idea was that if our legislators want to create a utopia in which every action we take, awake or asleep, is covered by some darned law, then the least they can do is help pay for it. I thought that making legislators choose between the family vacation or the bill creating the Illinois Clogged Drain Registry (and of course its enforcement agency and the patronage jobs that come with it) may get intrusive government off of our backs.

But I think the stakes have changed since that blog post. The tendency for our lawmakers to piddle away their time with busybody, useless laws has morphed from an annoyance to an obstacle that is threatening the state's economic survival.

I think it's time for a brave legislator to draft – and carry – my proposed bill. I'm not curtailing democracy by limiting what bills our legislators propose – I'm just saying they have to pay for the privilege if they want to get carried away.

If we can move up the primary six weeks to help out one candidate, or pass a confusing Drano law over one or two tragic incidents, or curtail the Freedom of Information Act because one or two people abused the new reforms, we can pass a bill leashing our Lawmakers Gone Wild because one journalist thinks it's a good idea.

Because it will look even worse in the history books when the General Assembly gets the news that the state's checks are bouncing while they are debating fighting obesity by replacing popcorn with fresh fruit as the official Illinois state snack.

I see nothing short of a special committee to change the state snack, or maybe to rethink the bill making drummer silty clay loam the official state soil. Maybe the House and Senate pension committees could take them up – it's not like they're doing a lot these days.
Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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