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Hey, Big Spender

It Goes Back to Illinois

Stanley Kurtz has been doing tremendous work on Obama’s ties to Bill Ayers lately, but his examination of Obama’s Chicago years doesn’t end there. Given the sharp contrast presented by the first debate – when John McCain called for across the board spending cuts to tighten our collective belts for the coming recession, while Obama’s effort to answer the same question found him launching into a barrage of new spending he intends to promote – it’s useful to look back at Kurtz’s reportage on Obama’s spending record as a State Senator:

In a 2007 speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), Obama touted his Illinois legislative experience and challenged members of Sharpton’s group to find a candidate with a better record of supporting the issues they cared about… Intrigued by Obama’s challenge to Sharpton’s group, Randolph Burnside, a professor of political science, and Kami Whitehurst, a doctoral candidate, both at the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, decided to put Obama’s Illinois record to the test. The two scholars made a study of bills sponsored and cosponsored by Obama during his Illinois State Senate career.

Published in the Journal of Black Studies, the results are striking. Burnside and Whitehurst produced two bar graphs, one representing bills of which Obama was the main sponsor, arranged by subject, and a second displaying bills Obama joined as a cosponsor. In the chart depicting bills of which Obama was the main sponsor, the bar for “social welfare” legislation towers over every other category. In the chart of Obama’s cosponsored bills, social welfare legislation continues to far exceed all other categories, although now crime-related bills are visibly present in second place, with regulation and tax bills close behind. According to Burnside and Whitehurst, other than social welfare and a bit of government regulation, “Obama devoted very little time to most policy areas.”

This brings us to what is perhaps the most striking result of our tour through Obama’s Springfield days. Conventional wisdom has it that John McCain holds a political advantage over Obama on war and foreign policy issues, while Obama is favored to handle the economy. Yet Obama’s economic experience is largely limited to social welfare spending. Indeed, precisely because of his penchant for spending, Obama’s fingerprints are all over Illinois’s burgeoning fiscal crisis.

The Illinois state budget has been in an ever-widening crisis since 2001. In an April 2007 report, a committee of top Chicago business leaders warned that the state was “headed toward fiscal implosion.” Illinois’s unfunded pension debt is the highest in the nation, while Illinois is sixth in the nation in per capita tax-supported debt. Yet the Illinois General Assembly-now controlled by Obama’s Democratic allies-churns out at will exactly the sort of spending programs Obama pushed for, with only partial success, under the Republicans. The result is a fast-growing gap between revenues and expenditures (unimpeded by the statutory requirement of a balanced budget), rising fears of fiscal meltdown, finger-pointing, and political gridlock.

And here is how Obama responded to the fiscal mess he had helped create:

A watershed moment in Illinois’s fiscal decline came in 2002, when crashing receipts and Democratic reluctance to enact spending cuts forced Republican governor George Ryan to call a special legislative session. While Ryan railed at legislators for refusing to rein in an out-of-control budget, the Chicago Tribune spoke ominously of an “all-consuming state budget crisis.” Unwilling to cut back on social welfare spending, Obama’s chief partner and political mentor, senate Democratic leader Emil Jones, came up with the idea of borrowing against the proceeds of a windfall tobacco lawsuit settlement due to the state.

This idea sent the editorial pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune into a tizzy. Editorialists hammered cut-averse legislators for “chickening out,” for making use of “tricked-up numbers,” for a “cowardly abdication of responsibility,” and for sacrificing the state’s bond rating to “short-term political gains.” As critics repeatedly pointed out, borrowing against a onetime tobacco settlement-instead of balancing the budget with regular revenues-would be a recipe for long-term fiscal disaster.

What was Obama doing while all this was going on? He was promoting the tobacco securitization plan in his Hyde Park Herald column, railing against the governor in the Defender for balancing the budget “on the back of the poor,” and voting to override cuts in treasured programs like bilingual education. Actually, far from “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor,” the governor had trimmed evenly across all the state’s most expensive programs. In the end, Ryan did force a number of cuts, yet the resistance of Obama and his allies took a toll. When, just a year later, Democrats added control of the governorship and state senate to their existing control of the house, they revealed that the state deficit had reached $5 billion-far larger than most had feared. Since then it’s been a swift downhill tumble toward fiscal implosion for Illinois. Now ruling, the Democrats have continued their profligate ways, pushing the state’s budget woes to new heights.

This was why as recently as last spring, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich was pushing the largest tax increase in Illinois history, which proved too much even for Obama’s former colleagues. If there’s one thing Obama is absolutely not prepared to do, it’s cut spending in tough budgetary times.

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