But too many of the governor's critics have focused on the revenue
side of the budget, criticizing Blagojevich's campaign promise not
to raise state income or sales taxes. From the perspectives of both
politics and policy, that was one of the few good promises the
governor has made and kept.
The problem in Illinois is not too
little revenue. The problem is too much spending.
In 1998 Illinois' total budget was about $38 billion. The fiscal
2006 budget is $54.4 billion. Or maybe $55 billion. Or maybe $58
billion. All three of those estimates were made by the governor and
lawmakers after passing the budget at the end of May. So much pork
spending was promised in last-minute backroom deals that no one knew
exactly what had been promised or how much it will cost.
Giving lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, let's go with the low
estimate of $54.4 billion. That's $16.4 billion more than in 1998 --
a nearly 50 percent increase in spending. From fiscal 2002 to fiscal
2005, Illinois increased state spending by 31 percent, according to
the National Association of State Budget Officers. The fiscal 2006
budget continues that surge.
State spending is growing several times faster than inflation,
the state's economy and family income.
The fiscal 2006 budget sends more money to public schools and
other things that are high priorities for a large number of
Illinoisans. But those priorities have been getting budget increases
for decades -- and there is little evidence we are getting anything
close to our money's worth. Worse still, the state is spending
billions of dollars on things that are low priorities, or no
priority at all, for most citizens.
Illinois has the weakest job growth of any state in this region,
and a major factor is the state's relatively hostile business
climate. Hundreds of business tax and fee increases have been levied
by the Blagojevich administration, hoping to stay under the radar
screen of tax-weary voters. The previous governor, Republican George
Ryan, did the same.
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In 2004, Illinois ranked 46th in the nation on the "U.S. Economic
Freedom Index," a Pacific Research Institute measure based on taxes
Some lawmakers contend Illinois is a low-tax
state, but that is false. The Illinois Policy Institute last year
analyzed the combined state, local and federal tax burdens and
determined Illinois residents have the 14th-highest total tax burden
in the nation. Also in 2004, the Tax Foundation, a national tax
watchdog group, ranked Illinois as having the 13th-highest tax
burden after factoring in the federal tax bite.
Higher income taxes are always touted as the solution to the
state's chronic budget problems, including when Gov. Jim Edgar
turned a "temporary" income tax surcharge into a permanent tax hike.
That tax hike and hundreds of other fee and tax hikes passed since
then have not kept Illinois lawmakers from raiding teachers' pension
funds and complaining about having to make "cuts."
The irony here is that Gov. Blagojevich identified the problem
shortly after taking office in 2003, when he complained Illinois
lawmakers spend money "like drunken sailors."
Until lawmakers and the governor take a far more sober approach
to their job, no amount of tax increases will put the state on
firmer financial footing.
Steve Stanek is the
author of Heartland Policy Study No. 107, "Illinois' Public Pension
Crisis," released on May 24. He is also managing editor of a monthly
publication addressing budget and tax policy issues across the
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