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Gov. Bruce Rauner

Something’s gotta go when the grocery bill soars

SHARE Something’s gotta go when the grocery bill soars
SHARE Something’s gotta go when the grocery bill soars

You just finished the family shopping at the grocery store. The clerk rings you up. You spent way more than what was in the budget and you really have to buy the kids the new swimsuits for summer camp. You have to put stuff back. How do you decide?

OPINION

Do you look at everything in your cart or just the treats your kids like? Do you take out the chicken or the ground beef, or both? Wait. Why are you ignoring the salmon? Because you promised your spouse you’d make it for a special weekend dinner?

Illinois keeps going through the checkout line with too much stuffed in the cart. Do we look at everything in our cart?

With the temporary income tax increase gone and pensions eating up a quarter of every dollar we spend, to continue the analogy, Gov. Bruce Rauner says we’ve got to put back about $6 billion in groceries. Why not the salmon?

Last week, I noted Illinois has a salmon fund with about $80,000 in it at the end of April. Not enough. What about the nearly $2 million in the pheasant fund? Let’s not just pick fish and birds. What about that $1.88 million left in the “Metro Pier and Expo Incentive” fund?

Illinois lawmakers recently plugged a 2015 budget gap partly by taking $1.3 billion from special state funds we never hear much about. We have nearly 800 of these funds with $9.67 billion in them. And we have a fiscal emergency.

Now, sadly, much of the $9.67 billion can’t cover our $6 billion shortage. It’s tied up in funds given by the federal government that have to be spent a certain way, or in trusts or bonds that probably cannot be touched. But there are some.

Comptroller Leslie Munger says Illinois has far more of these funds than most other states. Richard Dye, of the Institute for Government and Public Affairs, says $70 billion gets moved through all state funds every year, but we only ever focus on about $35 billion in the general revenue fund used for most state government operations.

Laurence Msall, president of the government finance watchdog Civic Federation, says probably 500 or so of the 800 funds could be collapsed and the money funneled into the state’s main checking account. That might add only $300 million or $400 million to the account, he says. OK, still. We owe a lot of money. Won’t hundreds of millions help?

“We need to have a serious discussion about what are the essential services of state government,” Msall said. “If there’s general consensus that autism services need to be continued, but the state decides it can’t provide it, then it’s difficult to justify some of the other dedicated funds continuing to be funded.”

Or maybe Msall’s own analogy is better: “If Illinois was a family business in trouble and only some of the siblings had to turn in their credit cards, would that be fair? They keep charging even when the family home is threatened with foreclosure. Is it fair some get to keep charging in the family and others don’t?”

For a few weeks there, we stopped spending on children with autism, but we still had salmon in the grocery cart. What do you say we stop and talk about all this before we head to the checkout line?

Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois.

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