Friday, June 22, 2007

Q&A: Alan Ehrehnalt

The executive editor of Governing, a monthly magazine that covers state and local government and is published by Congressional Quarterly, since 1991. Ehrenhalt has nearly 40 years of journalism experience ranging from working as a Chicago reporter for The Associated Press to writing three books: The Lost City, the United States of Ambition and Democracy in the Mirror. He’s also a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World, as well as the Wall Street Journal.

He grew up on Chicago’s South Side and graduated from the University of Chicago High School. He earned his bachelor’s in psychology from Brandeis University and his master’s in journalism from Columbia University. He became a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University and had a few academic appointments before his current position as senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

He presented “The States in the 21st Century” for a forum on state government and citizen participation hosted by the University of Illinois at Springfield June 20 and sponsored by the Center for State Policy and Leadership, the College of Public Affairs and Administration and Public Radio WUIS 91.9 FM.

The Center’s Richard Schuldt, director of the Survey Research Office of the Center for State Policy and Leadership, presented results of a recent project, “Citizen Views of State Government: New Survey Findings from Illinois,” showing Illinoisans’ general dissatisfaction with their state government and their own participation in policy issues important to them.

Maybe the reason is Illinois isn’t even covering the basics, while other states are coming up with public policy innovations. Ehrenhalt shared his thoughts about Illinois compared to other states during a phone interview with Bethany Carson June 21. This is an edited version of that conversation:

Q: What makes Illinois’ fiscal situation one of the worst in the nation?
A: No. 1, Illinois has not handled its [public employee] pension responsibilities very well. As has been documented before, Illinois has chosen to have fairly generous pensions but not to fund them in an actuarially sound way. And the Government Accounting Standards Board is now requiring a much more thorough accounting of future, not only pension, but other retiree benefits. And when those numbers come in, some states are really showing to be doing badly. New Jersey is the other one that’s been very irresponsible.

Also, Illinois has had worse Medicaid problems than other states. And I’m not sure entirely what’s behind that, but Illinois for the last 20 years has been in more trouble in Medicaid than almost any other state.

Q: How bad compared to other states?
A: It’s hard to quantify, but on Medicaid, I only know that Illinois’ problems are among the most serious. And on pension liabilities, Illinois is in as serious trouble as any other states, maybe more. New Jersey would be the other one.

You know, this is what brought the city of San Diego down a couple of years ago. They were granting public unions generous pensions, and then they were not funding them because the debts were in the future. And they thought they could get away with it.

It is a technique that a couple of states have resorted to. And [Gov. Rod] Blagojevich did this. You borrow money against future assets in order to meet your immediate needs and not worry about what happens when the balloon payment has to be made. Christine Todd Whitman did that in New Jersey.

Q: If you’re borrowing money now and not worrying about the balloon payments later because it will be in another administration, what does that suggest?
A: It suggests bad leadership. It suggests perhaps attention deficit disorder, or worse, it suggests an attempt to push the problems off on somebody else. Let’s face it. We all like to do that. We all like to live well today and let somebody else worry about it tomorrow, but when a state consistently does that, that’s not good.

What it requires to deal with these problems is a strong governor and a legislature willing to work with him. Normally that means one party, but here you have one party and it isn’t doing any good. Sometimes it doesn’t mean that. California and Florida, and I would also say Pennsylvania, are examples of states where strong governors have been able to reach out to the other party and solve some problems, not to say California doesn’t still have serious pension problems. But it has a working majority. The irony is that it’s the governor and the Democratic Party, and the governor’s own Republican Party is essentially shut out.

Q: Our problems have compounded over many years, but how much does the leadership by the governor and the legislative leaders contribute to our current budget situation? Is it a symptom of a bigger problem?
A: It’s a symptom of a problem that, like many other structural deficit problem, festers, and if it’s not attended to, becomes acute. And I think that is what Illinois needs to worry about.

He asked why Blagojevich proposed the gross receipts tax. I said the governor promised in his campaigns not to raise income or sales taxes, pinning himself in a corner.

A: That gets to the problems that lots of governors have, making promises in their campaigns that tie them up later. The more prudent governors don’t promise things that they can’t deliver on or don’t promise things that make it difficult for them to accomplish their agendas.

Putting Illinois’ finances in order would be as great an accomplishment if not greater than passage of some of the programs that Blagojevich would like to pass. And since they’re not passing anyway, it would make a great deal of sense to deal with the structural budget gaps.

Mark Warner [a Democrat] did it in Virginia with Republican help. They had a rather serious fiscal crisis brought on by the previous governor’s campaign promise to eliminate the tax on automobiles. Warner came in, and Virginia really did have a serious structural problem. He split the Republicans, formed a coalition of moderate Republicans and his own Democratic Party and got the tax reform plan that he wanted. And the state’s in much better shape now. So it’s not impossible. It’s more difficult in some places than others.

I think a lot of it is it makes a big difference in whom you elect and re-elect. Unfortunately [in Illinois], the Democrats coming in after 26 years out of power elected a good campaigner who really didn’t have a very sustained interest in governing and in many ways showed contempt for the legislature rather than working with them.

Q: Is there anything that you think makes Illinois unique?
A: To the extent that states have been a source of innovation and creativity in the last 20 years, Illinois has not really participated in that to the extent that you would think it might. You think about welfare, Tommy Thompson; reorganizing government, John Engler in Michigan; Schwarzenegger and environmental issues; Eliot Spitzer in New York as attorney general, but nevertheless, really changing the role of the attorney general. And I can name others. In Illinois, I suppose most people would say that you would have to go back to Jim Thompson to find a governor and a legislature working together and providing some innovative government.

Although, George Ryan’s Build Illinois was a rather ambitious program. I certainly would give Ryan credit for that. If you throw out the scandal, you could make a decent case that he was a good governor.

Q: It’s interesting to think about how the current governor, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, will be perceived down the road.
A: If things don’t change, I would say not very well.

As Ehrenhalt and I talked, the governor and the top four legislative leaders, Republicans and Democrats, were negotiating a one-month budget in hopes of buying some time to come up with a 12-month spending plan. We’ll know next week whether that will happen to prevent a shutdown of state services when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

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