The warring factions in Springfield created “working groups,” conducted “subject matter” hearings and held “negotiating sessions” on and off for nearly two years, but they still haven’t agreed on a balanced budget with realistic spending and revenue plans.
Lately, the rhetoric over who’s responsible for proposing a solution has devolved into “you first” — “no, you first,” so let’s consult the Illinois constitution for some guidance.
Call it a holiday season civics lesson:
The constitution says it’s the governor’s job to “prepare and submit to the General Assembly” by the third Wednesday in February “a state budget for the ensuing fiscal year” that includes an accounting of available funds and anticipated revenues, detailed spending proposals, and a plan for meeting state obligations.
Expenditures, the constitution notes, “shall not exceed funds estimated to be available.”
That’s clear enough, and Governor Bruce Rauner’s met some but not all of those requirements.
More on that later.
On the other side of the budget equation, the constitution empowers the state Legislature to make appropriation decisions, and it gives lawmakers “the exclusive power to raise revenue” by imposing taxes and fees.
Once the House and Senate agree on spending bills, the governor can reduce or veto any appropriation, and the Legislature can override either action with a super-majority—a three-fifths vote.
That’s also clear.
So how have these reasonable constitutional roles and responsibilities played out in today’s unreasonable and dysfunctional political environment?
Not well, as everyone knows.
When Rauner proposed his first budget in February of 2015, the Civic Federation described it as balanced only on paper, with several billion dollars in unrealistic cuts and “iffy” savings from a dubious pension reform proposal.
Republican lawmakers introduced 74 appropriation bills to implement the governor’s budget, but Democrats shelved all of them in committee and passed nine of their own budget bills without adding any new sources of revenue, so is was more than $4 billion in the red.
Rauner could have amended those bills, making enough cuts to produce his own version of a balanced budget, but he chose to veto the entire package, and there was no override.
This year, the governor introduced a budget with a $3.5 billion deficit, and offered to consider higher taxes to fill the hole if lawmakers enacted elements of his pro-business “Turnaround Agenda.”
Democrats rejected that proposal and came back with a spending plan that was out of whack by nearly $7 billion. It passed the House but not the Senate.
While that unproductive wheel spinning was going on, state workers still were getting paid and most programs still were being funded pursuant to various court orders, but not higher education or social services — the brinksmanship was starving them — so Rauner and the Legislature finally stopped fighting long enough to produce two stopgap spending plans: One for the second half of last year, the other for the last half of this year, along with two full-year K-12 education budgets.
But they haven’t approved any new revenue to keep up with the spending, so budget deficits, unpaid bills and retiree obligations have risen to mega-crisis levels.
Meanwhile, the current stopgap measure expires at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and neither side wants to propose new taxes, fees, loophole closings or massive budget cuts.
That reluctance, in an era of continuous campaigning with negative ads and robocalls, turns potentially manageable stumbling blocks into seemingly insurmountable walls.
Who’s responsible for the crisis? Both sides. And whose move is it? Either side.
That’s today’s civics lesson.
To be continued.
Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga