Chicago Tribune Mock Indiana? Think again 

You’ve probably heard the joke about why trees in Illinois lean east — because Indiana sucks.

Trash-talking our neighbor, or several of them, is the standard response from defenders of Illinois’ embarrassing political status quo. Yes, Indiana has a funded, stable pension system. Yes, Indiana keeps local governments accountable with effective property tax caps. Yes, Indiana pays its bills on time. But, hey, Hoosiers are all a bunch of hicks so who cares?

Instead of following Indiana’s example, Illinois taxpayers have accepted the unacceptable. We rationalize the irrational. We wear state government chicanery like a badge of honor.

We hardly question our legislature’s lazy schedule, even in times of financial crisis. It’s tradition that Illinois lawmakers focus on their most important task — passing a budget — during the final days, sometimes hours, of the spring legislative session. It’s no big deal that they take weeks off and then descend on Springfield for a chaotic, pressure-cooked finale.

It’s accepted that the timeline for change in Springfield is lethargic, uncaring and harmful to vulnerable citizens who rely on government. Wait in line, they’re told.

All of this, we have accepted.

By contrast, Indiana works on a biennial budget cycle, which means the state legislature there has considerably less work every other year. Illinois has explored transitioning to a biennial schedule, but it would require a constitutional change, and our leaders just aren’t interested in sensible budgeting.

Even with a two-year budget cycle, Indiana lawmakers embark on a rational approach, concentrating their work in the summer and fall before their session begins in January. That’s when Illinois’ lawmakers are on an extended vacation. When Indiana lawmakers convene in January, dealing with the budget is the first thing they do, not the last.

Indiana lawmakers are paid a base salary of $25,435 compared with roughly $68,000 in Illinois. Compensation in both states climbs substantially when mileage, per diem costs and leadership posts are included, but at least Indiana legislators can point to a state government running in the black.

Of course Indiana pays its bills on time — that means within 35 days — unlike the deadbeat Land of Lincoln, where extreme late payments and costly interest penalties are the norm. We’ve accepted that too.

Currently, Indiana is under one-party (GOP) rule in the capital, which makes governing more cohesive. Under one-party rule in Illinois, when Democrats controlled state government from 2003 to 2015, this state still was a mess of unbalanced budgets, gross borrowing, skipped pension payments and late bill-paying.

As of last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton couldn’t even agree on how much money is available to spend in the state’s upcoming budget year. They’re currently fighting about the starting point.

I asked Indiana officials if they argue over revenue projections. They didn’t quite understand the question because, well, no they don’t squabble. State leaders from both parties spend a few weeks looking at forecasts and seeking outside advice. Then they come to an agreement on how much money is available to spend in the next budget cycle. Weird, right?

I asked my friend Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, a political commentator, writer and attorney in Indianapolis who used to live in Illinois, for his thoughts on the two states.

For instance, teachers in Indiana are threatening to strike over low pay. But in Illinois, local taxes, which support public schools, are driving residents to move away from our state. Why are we so different?

“The big difference is that when it was time to make hard choices and hard decisions, Indiana buckled down and made them,” he said. “Illinois kicked the can down the road. When all that pension stuff was starting to bubble up and nobody did anything in Illinois, we had (former) Gov. Mitch Daniels to make those hard decisions.”

Daniels was elected in 2004, two years into Rod Blagojevich’s first term as governor. Instead of dealing responsibly with pension pressures, Blagojevich led a $10 billion borrowing scheme to make pension payments and then signed off on budgets with pension-payment holidays. But really, no Illinois governor, past or present, Democrat or Republican, has urgently dealt with this state’s pension crisis.

Shabazz grew up in Chicago, worked for Illinois state government for several years and still owns property in Springfield. He appreciates both states and even Illinois’ “knock-down, drag-out (political) culture that, if done well, rewards smartness and a certain amount of shrewdness.”

That is not the final product, however. The culture of shrewdness here is perverse and destructive.

Before we ended our conversation, Shabazz added this observation: “State government unions are not as powerful in Indiana as they are in Illinois. If I had to compare the two, I would say Illinois is an example of what happens when you let government unions get out of control.”

So what’s better: unions running state government or so-called hicks running state government?

Kristen McQueary is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board.

kmcqeuary@chicagotribune.com