A yearlong budget battle is set to push Illinois into uncharted waters.
No state has gone without a budget for a full year since at least the 1930s,
according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State Comptroller Leslie Munger announced that come July 1, her office will be
forced to stop $23 billion in spending for schools, 911 call centers, domestic
violence shelters, federally funded social and human services and higher
ďOur social service network is being torn apart,Ē Munger said.
The potential catastrophe beginning July 1 raises an important question
Illinoisans have been asking for months. How did we get here?
Of course, political leaders have been locked in battle for the last 12 months.
But beyond that, the state hasnít had a balanced budget since 2001. Itís home to
the worst credit rating in the nation. Its problems are broad and deep.
John F. Kennedy offers a clue. ďTo govern is to choose,Ē he once said.
A look at the choices Illinois lawmakers have made over the past 15 years shows
the stateís political elite has had little interest in protecting funding for
education, social services and public safety. Rather, politicians have allowed
spending on state-worker pensions and benefits to crowd out the core services
Illinoisans depend on most.
From 2000 to 2015, total state tax revenues grew by a robust 57 percent. But
spending on higher education (down 8 percent), human services (up 10 percent),
public safety (up 12 percent) and K-12 education (35 percent) hasnít come close
to that pace, according to the governorís 2017 budget summary.
So why is Illinois mired in debt and unpaid bills?
Medicaid spending is up 141 percent over that time period. State-employee
insurance spending is up 166 percent. And thatís nothing compared to the
elephant in the room.
Spending on state-employee pension benefits grew an astonishing 586 percent, or
$6.6 billion, from 2000 to 2015.
With priorities like those, itís no wonder the Land of Lincoln has been hellish
for social service providers over the last decade. While the last year has been
particularly difficult, these problems are not new.
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Even in recent years when the state had
budgets and a record-setting tax hike, community organizations still
struggled with a deadbeat state.
A 2013 Urban Institute survey reported that for more than
two-thirds of Illinois nonprofits, government payments did not cover
the full cost of contracted services. A 2009 Urban Institute study
pegged Illinois as the worst state in the nation for timely payments
Blaming state workers for these out-of-whack priorities is
unfair. The pension problem was created and has been fueled by weak
politicians Ė men and women who decided their next elections were
more important than the next generation.
These lawmakers have failed to make tough choices to protect
essential services from the black hole of pension payments. Now, 25
cents of every dollar the state spends goes to pensions.
Itís been over a year since the Illinois Supreme Court ruled a
modest pension-reform package unconstitutional. So what have
lawmakers been doing in the meantime to ensure Illinoisans arenít
stuck in a state that puts pensions over people?
A whole lot of nothing.
The state Supreme Courtís ruling left open a number of simple
reforms lawmakers could make today if they wanted.
They could lead by example and abolish their own pensions. They
could give new workers 401(k)-style retirement plans, which most
Illinoisans rely on. They could offer 401(k)s to existing workers as
an alternative to betting on a bankrupt pension system. They could
limit the meteoric growth in benefits by freezing salaries.
These ideas have been met with a resounding shrug in Springfield.
Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, hasnít permitted a
vote on any state pension reform since the ruling.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has been paying
a lobbyist $10,000 a month to work on pension reform. But Cullerton
has refused to put his reform plan up for a vote, despite pleas from
Gov. Bruce Rauner. And each day of inaction serves to further crowd
out the stateís essential services, bit by bit.
Of course, the selfishness of Springfieldís political leaders is
nothing new. Not in the state that puts politics, and pensions, over
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