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An obvious place to begin cutting

Thursday, June 18, 2009
Daily Herald
by Daily Herald Editorial Board

There may be no better object lesson on the state's fitful search for a balanced budget than in a scenario that played out in Cook County.

The Cook County Board last year lent the county's regional superintendent of schools office $190,000. Today, the office is nearly $1 million in debt and there is no clear answer as to where it will get the money to pay back the county, let alone continue to operate in whatever it is that requires so much money every year.

Yet, according to a state audit, the office's superintendent, Charles Flowers, managed to divert thousands of dollars to pay for airplane flights, meals and cash advances. He says he paid all the money back, but the auditors say there's no clear way to tell if that's true.

The Cook County Board - as "shocked, shocked" as Captain Renault when, in the movie Casablanca, he heard gambling was going on at Rick's Cafe - has demanded an investigation. No doubt, one will be undertaken, as of course it should, and we'll all be "shocked, shocked" at whatever its results.

But the larger issue isn't whether one public servant was misusing his authority in a single little-known government bureau. The issue that few in government seem to grasp is that we taxpayers are growing weary of being expected to accept that such situations are rare exceptions in the operation of government.

It surely came as a surprise to no one to learn that the office of County Board President Todd Stroger put the regional superintendent of schools loan on the county agenda and that Flowers is a friend of Stroger. And it likely comes as a surprise to few to hear Stroger's office respond that the friendship is irrelevant because the full county board, with only Elizabeth Doody Gorman dissenting, approved the money.

Stroger, like Gov. Patrick Quinn at the state level, is constantly crying that if forced to make the spending cuts required to keep his government solvent, he will have to devastate programs for the poor and infirm. The only place to find the money to balance the budget, he says, is in those programs most desperately needed.

At the state level, Quinn is singing the same song. The only way Illinois can close its $12 billion budget gap is to ravage programs for schoolchildren, the sick and the elderly.

And yet, with barely the need for a search, the Flowers story emerges - a story, by the way, that may feature its own tales of waste and nepotism.

Flowers says he won't resign because he's got too much to do. We can't wait to hear what he does that isn't already being done or couldn't be done by the state Board of Education. Don't look for help in the "frequently asked questions" of the office's Web site. It's completely blank.

No, the bottom line is that these archaic regional superintendents operate all across the state with vague, duplicative duties, and they are ripe, as Flowers has shown, for misuse.

Yet, there is no place in the budget that can be cut except in the agencies that directly help people? We would be shocked, yes shocked, if that were really true.

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