• AP Photo/The State Journal-Register, David Spencer
  • Protesters have already told state representatives what they don’t want cut from the budget.

If you’re in the mood for talk that isn’t as tough as it wants to be, turn to the op-ed page of Tuesday’s Sun-Times and read the essay there by Madeleine Doubek, chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois. Illinois needs to trim the state budget to something it can afford, she says, so let’s get to it! “It’s up to all of us to figure out what we want to afford. What we’re willing to pay for and what we’re not willing to fund. What can we live without?”

To frame the question this way is pretty much to answer it. I can easily name several programs I can live without, such as repaving any state road beyond DuPage County or underwriting any early-education center that my grandchildren wouldn’t have applied to anyway. I believe that if Illinois puts its mind to it, it can lop billions of dollars off its budget without inconveniencing me in the slightest.

Most Illinoisans could make the same claim.

But instead of insisting Illinois do what has to be done to everybody else, Doubek wants a discussion. “I don’t hear many ideas for savings from transit chiefs or day-care advocates or mayors,” she peevishly remarks. And she goes on, “It does sound like hospital executives have some creative ideas to consider. Good. What about everyone else?”

This is obviously a reference to a recent Tribune editorial hailing a pilot program at the Lurie Children’s Hospital that would improve services and save the state money in the long run. If programs like this one grow on trees, let’s harvest the nuts and plant them around the state.

But I don’t think they do. So here’s my idea to those transit chiefs and day-care advocates and mayors. Don’t bother searching for economies in your own programs. You probably couldn’t see an economy that’s right under your nose. The view’s better at a distance. The best way to protect your program is to identify the billions of dollars in cuts you and most of the rest of us could live with in somebody else’s. If Illinois likes your idea it could even say thanks by slipping your operation 10 percent of the savings.

“It will be brutal,” Doubek predicts. “We’ve got to cut more than $6 billion from what we’re used to spending for the year that starts in six months. We need to get talking. Now.”

A time to cut isn’t a time for talk. It’s a time to get out the long knives.