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What Ails Illinois Could Be Romney's Tonic

Union members rally outside of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's office on Feb. 2, demanding pay raises he withheld. Quinn said the state doesn't have the money to cover the raises.
Seth Perlman
Union members rally outside of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's office on Feb. 2, demanding pay raises he withheld. Quinn said the state doesn't have the money to cover the raises.

Illinois is in the worst fiscal shape of any state in the country.

Its pension system is $85 billion short of what it will need to pay promised retirement benefits, while it's already $8 billion behind on its everyday bills — money for schools, hospitals and private vendors for work already done and approved.

All of that could be good news next week — at least politically — says Illinois state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.

Rutherford is the campaign chairman in Illinois for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. With the Illinois presidential primary coming up on Tuesday, Rutherford believes that the state's fiscal problems will play to Romney's message that he has the right background to turn things around economically.

"I'm very much noting these things as far as Gov. Romney's position," Rutherford says. "The public of Illinois, seeing a high unemployment rate and all our accumulated debts, that will all bring about a mindset to have someone lead the country who has a good business background."

There's no question that Illinois is in bad shape. Its credit rating was downgraded yet again in January, making its borrowing costs the highest of any state. And Illinois does a lot of borrowing.

According to the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan research group in Chicago, if things continue along their present course, Illinois will be $35 billion behind on its bills within five years.

"Certainly Illinoisans have been confronted for some time with fiscal irresponsibility, defying good business practice," says Laurence Msall, the group's president. "Most citizens look at the problems of the state and wonder why it can't balance its budget, cut its expenses like so many families and businesses."

The state's fiscal woes are part of the primary mix. Along with the presidential voting, every state legislative seat is subject to a primary race on Tuesday. Many incumbent legislators are having to explain to constituents why the state's condition keeps getting worse, despite a steep increase in income taxes last year.

"Any analysis of Illinois requires you to look at the state on the ground," says Pat Brady, state GOP chairman and a Romney backer. "This state is in such bad financial shape. We're on the brink of bankruptcy here."

States don't go bankrupt. But certainly Romney is trying to position himself as a fiscal conservative. His messages — and ads sponsored by Restore Our Future, the superPAC backing his campaign — have attacked rival Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, as a free-spending "Washington insider."

But that's been the case in plenty of other states, as well. And some observers doubt that voters will make their pick based on levels of state debt — especially in a national race.

"I doubt very much that the fiscal manager persona will resonate any more or less with Illinois voters versus voters in other states," says Richard Dye, a government finance expert at the University of Illinois. "Yes, Illinois' fiscal crisis is starting to penetrate public consciousness, but it is an enormous stretch to argue that the skill set of a presidential candidate could matter for the state's own spending, taxing and pension policy decisions."

Romney himself may have stepped on the message his supporters in Illinois are putting forward. "I believe we're in a recovery mode, finally," he said on Fox News on Thursday. "I think it's likely things will get better."

Regardless, polls in Illinois have shown Romney with a small but consistent lead.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.