Steve Chapman

To say that California is in better fiscal condition than Illinois is like saying the captain of the Exxon Valdez grades out higher than the guy at the helm of the Titanic. Disasters come in different doses. One study found that California ranks 46th in the health of its state government finances, with Illinois limping in at 48th place.

So imagine the surprise in the Land of Lincoln to learn that California Gov. Jerry Brown plans to create a rainy-day fund for future downturns. He's expecting large budget surpluses, which he wants to use to restore long-term fiscal health rather than squander on short-term demands.

In Illinois, there is no danger that extra cash will be squandered, because there is no extra cash. But state legislators know you can't be too careful. So they are considering approving $100 million for the Barack Obama Presidential Library. Without that promise, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan fears, the president might put his monument somewhere else -- Hawaii or New York or maybe Nairobi.

Without that promise, of course, Illinois would also save $100 million. A government that already spends and promises well beyond its means has no business taking on any new obligation it can possibly avoid. But if Illinois lawmakers were susceptible to logic or arithmetic, the state would not be insolvent to begin with.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel predicts the library "would be a great economic boom and a tourism boom for the city of Chicago." Madigan agrees, adding, "We did it for Abraham Lincoln here in Springfield. We can do it for Barack Obama in Chicago."

One of the big differences between the two is that Lincoln was not a prodigious fundraiser and regrettably was unavailable to solicit donations for his library. Obama, by contrast, shook $1.1 billion out of the trees in 2012, more than any presidential candidate in history. Come January 2016, he will have even more time to ask wealthy admirers to fan him with $100 bills.

The economic boom is likely one of those mirages that politicians often sight in the distance. Emanuel's aides can provide no research to support his claim.

A presidential library may make a big difference in West Branch, Iowa, or Abilene, Kansas, which are not overflowing with other seductions. Because Chicago has an array of tourist destinations already in place -- Wrigley Field, the Art Institute, Navy Pier, Millennium Park, the Field Museum and more -- this one probably wouldn't attract a lot of people who wouldn't come otherwise.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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