Netflix has discovered an incredible hit with its new political drama – “House of Cards”! I think Netflix’s next project should be “House of Cards II”… but instead of the show being located in Washington, D.C., this one would be based in Springfield, Illinois. Just imagine the possibilities!
I picture “House of Cards II” beginning each episode with a brief “prologue” of snippets and sound bites from prior episodes -- introduced by a deep, resonant voice saying: “Previously, within the ‘House of Cards II…”:
1) During a hotly contested 2010 election for governor, many polls showed incumbent Pat Quinn trailing as election day approached. Quinn then met with government union representatives and promised he would not reduce staffing levels for two years in return for their support. Not surprisingly, Quinn won. Also not surprisingly, he ended up reneging on that promise due to the state’s desperate financial conditions – conditions that were well known prior to the election.
2) The State of Illinois’ financial condition, collapsing so fast that even politicians couldn’t ignore it anymore, prompted the legislature to approve a 67% increase in the state income tax rate just two months after the state election (isn’t that amazing?!). State leaders promised this tax increase would last just three years, but were so desperate for incremental revenue that they made the tax hike retroactive to the start of that year!
3) The state’s massive public pension system (encompassing employees from all the major Illinois government units – judicial, fire, police, education, etc.), a system already severely underfunded by the start of the new century became increasingly distressed due to a mix of very poor investment returns, very generous benefits, lengthening life spans, and major eligibility loopholes created by key legislative leaders to benefit political allies (as revealed through a series of Chicago Tribune exposes). Despite the self-evident unsustainability of these pension programs, state leaders continued to turn a blind eye toward it until 2012, when Governor Quinn suddenly made “pension reform” his priority – even creating a ludicrous comic book icon (“Squeezy, the pension python”) to illustrate how run away pension liabilities were sure to “squeeze” all other state budget resources dry.
4) Pension funding mismanagement was a major factor leading Moody’s to downgrade Illinois debt in January of 2012. S&P offered a number of warnings that it was considering a downgrade as well, highlighting the absolute necessity of Springfield leaders agreeing upon effective pension reform. However, despite the governor’s “pushing” from the summer of 2012 through the truncated legislative session in early January of 2013, the fractured and hapless legislators failed to approve any pension reform measure!
That fascinating prologue would then segue into the current episode, starring the “Squeezy” Governor, Patrick Quinn (who at one point during 2012 declared that he was "put on earth" to solve the pension crisis) as he delivered the high profile “State of the State” speech on February 6.
As we watch, we are just certain that the man “put on earth” to lead a courageous effort toward the resolution of Illinois’ “worst among all the states” financial condition – with prime focus on pension reform – will speak boldly and decisively about pension funding and financial discipline!
Alas, we would be wrong – dead wrong! Instead, Quinn focused upon special acknowledgement of union officials, veterans, and Jesse White. He resorted to quoting from the Bible—perhaps attempting to lend his speech a credibility of which he alone is not capable. And drawing upon flowery but empty phraseology, meant to sound profound but signifying nothing, Quinn described Illinois as “a community of shared values … a place where everyone has the opportunity to work and where our companies innovate and grow.” http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-02-07/news/ct-edit-speech-0207-jm-20130207_1_pension-crisis-pension-funds-state-address
There was nary a mention of Illinois’ $200 billion in state unfunded obligations and overdue bills. Not a word about the state’s unaddressed pension mess moving deeper into the red each day by at least $17 million. No critique of the legislative impotence that led both S&P and Fitch to downgrade Illinois debt (as threatened) in January. Not one regret expressed about Illinois being referred to as “the Greece next door” or being likened by one international financier to the heavily indebted nation of Portugal.
In fact, the only unquestionable insight that emerged from Quinn’s big speech is the governor’s primary focus moving forward. Apparently, Quinn has shifted from “Squeezy” to the “E”-word: “Election 2014”. He is determined to set himself up for four more years as governor – no matter what that involves.
As I consider the possibility of this new drama series, it occurs to me that Netflix might actually reject the material on the grounds that such blind and inept government is not possible in the United States in 2013. They might insist that the more incongruent and irrational aspects of the above script be toned down in order to make it more believable!
In response, I would insist that the above is “reality” in Illinois. However, even if Netflix eventually accepted that truth, it might respond that the rest of the country just isn’t ready for a “reality” quite that dark!