Smile Politely

The Utilitarian case for higher taxes

“Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”

– William F. Buckley Jr.

I’d like to think of myself as the sort of person who is more likely to use William Buckley for an epithet rather than an epigraph, but then again desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say.

I am speaking, of course, about the sad state of affairs in Springfield that have led to the daunting prospect that we all must face here in East Central Illinois insofar as our social services are concerned. According to last Sunday’s News-Gazette, services for the developmentally disabled, mentally ill, homeless, substance dependant and otherwise disenfranchised stand to be cut by millions of dollars, resulting in the loss, not only of services integral to the stability of our community here in Champaign-Urbana, but in the loss of hundreds and hundreds of jobs.

The reason for all of this? Same old song: Springfield fat cats using our money on airplane rides and political payouts instead of putting it towards the common good.


Well, yeah, I guess that is right. But, correct me if I’m wrong here, they have been doing this since long before I was born. The truth is that, we know this; we knew this in Blagojevich’s Illinois, we knew it in Ryan’s Illinois and we remember it every April 15 during our mad dash to the post office, but it has never stopped us from sending our money to them and it has never motivated us to organize in order to hold them accountable for their assault on the public trust.

So why then, should we pump even more of our money into a corrupt system? A good question. Well, here is my answer: simply, because it is in our best interest. If we don’t, we’ll lose funding for those services that are integral to the foundation of our community’s economic stability, which is a fact that we don’t have to look very far back into our history to corroborate.

For example, it’s no coincidence that the Mental Health Center’s homeless shelter and outreach hub — the Times Center — emerged in 1999 at the same time that downtown Champaign began to re-emerge as a place where you can not only go out for a cup of coffee or a nice cocktail, but also a place can also bring your children without running the risk of exposing them to prostitution, aggressive panhandling or out and out violence.

While still present, these issues are being addressed in large part by the Mental Health Center, the Prairie Center and the Developmental Services Center, all of which stand to lose serious chunks of their budgets.

Think about this the next time you visit downtown for brunch, sushi or a Diner Stack, or when you pay your obscene bar tab at Boltini or your much more reasonable bar tab at Esquire Lounge, because this is just one example of how our community has used social services to support the growth of private industry. I think we can agree, this has resulted in a more enjoyable community for all of us: the business owner and the consumer, but also the mentally ill or disenfranchised community member, who now have the option of seeking treatment and support from professionals who are willing to give it to them.

I’m asking you to think about the sense of safety that you enjoy — in part because of the services that thousands of disenfranchised community members have received — while you enjoy a local park with your family, go for a jog at night or are on an early morning walk. Just like your delicious soy venti matte latte, somebody has got to pay for it, and fair or not, that burden has fallen on our backs.

What’s on the table?

What we risk with inaction would be devastating to the lives of a great many people. In fact, we are getting a glimpse of what this looks like now. The pressure that Governor Blagojevich put on our community’s services over the past several years resulted in drastically reduced services for youth substance abuse programs. In 2008, the Prairie Center’s budget was slashed so severely by the state that they had to temporarily shut down their detox unit causing an influx of substance dependant patients at the local ERs. One year prior to this, in the face of substantial budget cuts, the Prairie Center chose to permanently abandon their youth treatment services while dramatically scaling back their prevention efforts. As you can imagine, these cuts have also created an incredible demand for grants and other sources of funding, thus diminishing the chances that Prairie Center — or any other local agency — has of funding a comprehensive youth treatment program.

As it stands, we as a community provide virtually no services for chemically dependant adolescents. What this means is, if you are youth in Champaign-Urbana with a substance abuse problem, and your parents don’t have the money or the will to send you to a private counselor, you’re unlikely to get any professional treatment whatsoever. Not only does this shift the burden of these students’ serious issues to the school system while endangering our communities (is it any wonder that we’re seeing increased gang activity and drug trafficking in our town?), but you don’t need to be John Stuart Mills to extrapolate the utilitarian argument from this equation. If there are more kids using and selling drugs, then it probably means that there are more kids likely to engage in other illegal acts, which means more crime, but also, more kids in the Juvenile Justice System. Add a little time to the equation and you have more adults caught up in the plain-old-ordinary Justice System, and then add a little more time to that and you have an ever increasing number ex-offenders in our community, which will, again, likely result in higher crime rates.

But with the cuts that we currently are looking at, I guarantee you that we won’t have to wait very long before we begin to see people suffering in our streets. And no, I’m not being melodramatic. If the Developmental Services Center gets the $2.7 to $3.9 million dollar revenue cut that they are expected to be hit with, they will have to eliminate services for an untold number developmentally disabled adults who rely on state funds for their work, as well as for their homes. That is, many of Champaign County’s developmentally disabled live in DSC group homes and receive job training and vocational opportunities from DSC work sites. Without these services, these people, who are friends, neighbors and family members, will be stripped of both their homes as well as their livelihoods. Make no mistake, this is a group of people that literally rely on you for their liberty, and right now, their situation appears about as dire as it can be.

And so we have a choice to make. We can choose to advocate for these and the other community members who will be effected by the planned budget cuts by asking our government to let us pay more taxes for social services, or we can enter into the idealistic death pact that Representative Chapin Rose from Mahomet suggests we do, also in the aforementioned Gazette article wherein he advocates for government efficiency through the reallocation of our state’s currently misappropriated revenue.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think this is a great idea, but such a fundamental overhaul of our current system seems about as likely to get done in time to help those whose daily well beings are being threatened, as it is likely that Senator Burris will step down from his appointment in shame. Said simply, Rose’s position here is about as idealistic as you can get. Furthermore, it is an idea that we, as an aggregated citizenry, have done virtually nothing to perpetuate. Indeed it seems that inaction is about the only thing that we Illinoisans have chosen to coalesce around. And so, as reality looms, the cost of such a transparently Pollyannaish stance as Rose’s, promises to be supremely prohibitive to all of us; those of us who rely directly upon these very important services, and the rest of us, who rely on them indirectly.

Inaction is not protest

If our state legislators are as serious as some of them say they are about changing the way that our government works, then they should do so, and we should do our part by pushing them as hard as we can to ensure that they do so, every single step of the way. But this can only happen after we have stabilized the patient. Perhaps it is unfortunate that this must be done with your and my tax dollars, but if the legislature chooses to use these budget cuts as a bargaining chip, those in our community with the least ability to advocate for themselves will not be the only ones who suffer, and suffer they will, but our community as a whole will also feel the impact of this. The bottom line is that protecting the disenfranchised members of our community is our duty, not only from a humanitarian standpoint, but also from a utilitarian perspective. The time has come for the vast majority of us who have sat on our hands during the plague of political corruption and government waste that has besieged our state over the years, to take some accountability, to pay penance for our silence, or else risk the consequences of our inaction once again.

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