By: Mark Glennon*
It came as no surprise when a friend mentioned he had chaired an organization I was a member of some 25 years ago, long before I knew him. After all, he’s a fiscal conservative like me, and the organization was the Chicago chapter of the fiscally conservative Concord Coalition.
But my jaw dropped when he told me who else was an earlier member – an active member, in fact: JB Pritzker, now Illinois Governor.
That friend is Brian Kasal, who ran Concord Coalition’s Chicago chapter. Kasal is now CEO and founder of FourStar Wealth Advisors in Chicago.
The Concord Coalition in the 1990s was a leading voice for fiscal restraint, which was very much in fashion at the time in both parties. It was founded in 1992 by the late former Senator Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), former Senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Peter Peterson.
I was a very inactive member, having only written a few small checks, so I sat down with Kasal to get the story on Pritzker, his role and his stated philosophy at the time.
Glennon: Tell me about the Concord Coalition.
Kasal: Concord Coalition was founded on a nonpartisan basis by people concerned about the deficits and public debt. It’s an American issue. It had many local chapters at the time and I ran Chicago’s. chapter with a great staff and volunteer team. The purpose was to educate the public about the debt and deficits and make sure we didn’t fall prey to the crippling debt issues of other societies.
In my career, we counsel families in managing their own financial plans and it’s similar to that. Deficit spending and debt eventually cause everything to unravel, leading to bankruptcy or some sort of workout. Concord was hoping to head that off for the country and also the states.
Glennon: What did your work include at Concord Coalition and when?
Kasal: As the Chicago chapter chair, working with great local staff and interns, we would coordinate Debtbuster programs that we held around Chicago. DebtBusters was where we would meet and break into working groups to discuss issues, and make mock budgets leading, hopefully, to paying for all government spending. We also had various rallies in visible places, like the Thompson Center plaza, to get noticed and talk to citizens about the national debt and the risks of carrying heavy deficits. This was in 1993, 1994 and 1995.
Glennon: What was Pritzker’s role at Concord Coalition at the time?
Kasal: He was one of the big donors to the Concord Coalition and a supporter of the organization’s goals. JB was one of our state leaders as a billionaire and prominent member of society.
Glennon: Did you ever have any personal contact with Prtitzker while at the Concord Coalition or see him talk about its mission? What did he say?
Kasal: Sure. He had a big profile and supported the whole program. I remember being at Debtbuster events and rallies with JB during this period and riding around in a truck with the debt clock attached to the back of the truck, and specific rally at the Thompson Center. JB would speak and espouse the fiscal constraints that would keep debts from piling up. Since all parties were working together we felt a kinship, an American kinship between Republicans, Democrats and others. Everyone was welcome, JB was part of all that.
Glennon: Do you think his administration today is following the principles advocated by the Concord Coalition?
Kasal: We had high hopes that someone who was that firm on fiscal responsibility would be running Illinois, now as governor, pushing the debt and deficits issue that we all discussed in those days of activism with the Concord Coalition. The recent Illinois budget was hailed as a balanced budget, but it was clearly far from that. Maybe the new team was just excited that they actually passed a budget, given recent years history, but it wasn’t balanced, even though they were hailing it as such.
We all know there was plenty of pork in the budget. Maybe our leaders were happy about delivering more spending but they are continuing the budget busting policies of the past, layering on debt and future liabilities, like a speeding freight train heading over a cliff. I would think our leaders would be straight with us, be super clear and make the hard decisions, propose real reforms, not just new taxes and more spending. So far that’s all we’ve seen, taxes and spending, no real structural reform, no real fiscal restraint.
Everybody really following Illinois knows the real problem is growing debt, not actually the budget because budgets don’t show debt, and it was government debt that was our big complaint at the Concord Coalition. How could a high profile leader of the local chapter of the Concord Coalition and now ignore the ridiculous, exploding debts we have in Illinois?
Glennon: Why do you think he dropped away from fiscal conservatism?
Kasal: JB always wanted to be a leader in politics and had run for office before. I’m not sure what his current motivation is now, but kicking the can down the road, not really dealing with the pension liabilities and Illinois debt issues is an easier path than leading the state in the right direction. As governor he has the power to make big changes and we are relying on him to do it! We were all hopeful that a leader with roots as a fiscal conservative would govern as a fiscal conservative and save the state from thirty-plus years of corrupt policies, overspending, crushing debt and more future liabilities. Continuing the same destructive policies means we never get back to competitiveness.
I founded and now own a national Financial Advisory company in headquartered Illinois. I love our state and our city and want to stay here. Our leaders are dumping more costs and taxes on the state, and people are leaving. Why can’t our leaders directly try to fix the state? Why can’t they make the hard decisions? I really think we are being led on a path to ruin. We need end this cycle corruption and overspending and overtaxing, as soon as possible and make the hard decisions to turn Illinois around.
What really drives me crazy is how our leadership and our governor pretend that more taxes don’t drive people off. People respond to incentives and when our leaders keep taking more and more money, it’s bad. People tell me all the time that they want to change their legal residence, leave Illinois and they tell me when they want to relocate. I think unless we change course this could get a whole lot worse. Fewer and fewer productive taxpayers paying higher and higher tax rates, until the whole system breaks.
Glennon: Is this just about political opportunism, and Pritzker is hardly alone on that, don’t you think? Fiscal conservatism was in vogue in the mid-90s and had bipartisan support.
Kasal: Yeah, that’s just the thing. We had real success with debt and deficit reduction, and lots of people jumped on the bandwagon for spending restraint. First it was Ross Perot with his charts about the national debt, then deficit hawks came into Congress and eventually President Clinton jumped onboard, too. By the end of the ‘90s the federal budget was actually balanced for one year.
Glennon: Pretty much the same for the Illinois budget except for the can-kick on pensions.
Kasal: Right. And it worked! We made some real progress and it was popular. So, looking back, JB was doing the popular thing. But as the 2018 elections came up we saw that huge shift left within the Democratic party so I guess the easy thing was to jump on that train instead, and ride it into office. Politicians don’t care about fiscal restraint now – most Republicans, too, by the way – so our Governor doesn’t, either. Progressives are the popular ones now.
Glennon: What I don’t get is that he has to know this won’t end well. He’s on a path to political career suicide because he’s driving the state over a cliff, as you said.
Kasal: I don’t get that either. If our Governor believed anything about what the Concord Coalition stood for and what he said back then, you’d think he knows that. Maybe he thinks he can keep things propped up long enough until he is finished as our leader. I just don’t see it. Illinois government has gone haywire, making oversized promises that the public is responsible for and cannot possibly keep. They could take Illinois down and with it, themselves. The taxpayers need to be heard and we need this state fixed, as soon as possible.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints