Other than a handful of state employees, highway workers, Medicaid vendors, commercial truck owners and poor people, almost nobody out there in Voter Land has really paid much attention to the state's budget problems.
Sure, they know the troubles exist, but it's mostly an abstract concept. The vast majority have very few direct contacts with state government, and those few state services haven't been noticeably curtailed yet. Their roads are still passable, their driver's licenses are still up to date, vast numbers of senior citizens aren't getting tossed out of nursing homes, their schools, while obviously struggling, are still open.
This lack of regular contact with state government is a big reason why I figured that Governor Rod Blagojevich could almost guarantee his re-election (barring any high-level indictments) by keeping his "no general tax hike" pledge. If a traffic light fails, people blame their local government, even though state funding for a repair hasn't arrived as promised. If a school budget runs into the red and forces a tax hike, they blame the school board, even though they may know in the back of their minds that the state may not be holding up its end. Etc., etc.
However, the Chicago Transit Authority's latest fiscal crisis is connecting millions of people in Chicago and Cook County with the state's budget problems in a very real way, and they're starting to take notice.
The CTA provides about 400 million total rides a year on its vast network of trains and buses. About a third of its riders don't have their own cars, and even if they do have private transportation not many regular CTA commuters are capable or willing to fork over the $20 to $30 a day it costs to park downtown these days. To top it all off, cab fares are about to go up 12 percent.
This month, the CTA threatened massive service rollbacks to deal with a $55 million deficit, and, in the process, set off a media firestorm in the metro region. The worst cuts were the elimination of express bus service to areas far from the Loop, which will force thousands of commuters to ride buses that stop every block or so for miles on end. Lengthening times between trains during rush hour will also be a problem because the delays will most likely create jam-packed stations and compartments. Regular riders are left to wonder how they'll possibly cope with the new and unwanted stressful change in their lives.
Downstate and suburban legislators don't always fully appreciate the value of the city's public transportation network. Imagine, for a moment, it was suddenly announced that the government could no long afford to maintain all the roads in your area and some streets would have to be closed and some important main arteries would be narrowed to just one or two lanes. Sure, you could get around the problem and find a way to make the best of the situation, but you wouldn't be happy at all - especially if a mouthy Chicago legislator was quoted in the local paper saying your town should just start charging people to use the streets and they'd be reopened.
As always in situations like this, the question everyone asks is, "Who do we blame for this mess?" Luckily for the CTA and Mayor Daley, who really should share a large burden for this situation, the fickle finger of fate is not pointing at a handy local figure, but directly at Governor Blagojevich.
It was the governor who promised to bail out the CTA in February by charging a new sales tax on computer software. That interjection by the governor essentially put all the responsibility for coming up with a solution on his shoulders. So far, he's not having a whole lot of luck, but if he doesn't come through with the money - software tax or no software tax - he'll wind up wearing the CTA's tattered jacket.
This one issue won't make or break the governor's re-election chances. But it has finally provided us with a major contact point between a large swath of the general public and the state budget, and that means solving the problem has become somewhat more important than most of the other (far more expensive) budget crises. And, this time, the guv won't be able to pass the blame off on someone else if he can't follow through. In local politics, unlike the statewide level, if you promise to fix something you're expected to actually fix it.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.