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Madeleine Doubek: We violate our state constitution in criminal ways

Any day now, the Illinois Supreme Court will tell us whether a 2013 law that attempts to make headway on the state’s pension crisis is “legal.”

I put quote marks around legal because plenty of Illinoisans — as we fret over and debate the pension crisis — like to assert frequently that any changes to pension benefits would be “illegal” because the state constitution plainly says public pension benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.”

That clause was added to the Illinois state constitution after a 1970 constitutional convention.

Seems pretty clear cut, right?

My question is this: What about the other ways in which we violate our state constitution on a daily basis? We are violating it, you know. I’m calling citizen’s arrest right now. All Illinois citizens should be arrested.

OPINION

The Illinois state constitution also says, right up front in Article X, Section 1: “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” That’s primary responsibility, as in more than half, but state taxpayers haven’t been providing half of school funding for years.

On average in Illinois, local property taxes and local taxpayers pay for two-thirds of the funding for their school districts, not state taxes or taxpayers. Residents in many local communities around Illinois are likely to continue to supplement the 2015 foundation level of education funding provided by the state, when they are able. That foundation level is $6,119. On average, annual per-pupil spending in Illinois, which includes state and local tax dollars, ranges anywhere from $6,000 to more than $30,000.

Anyone think that range is criminal?

Really, despite what the constitution says, and like it or not, Illinois’ education system is property tax-based, and that’s a function of local, not state, government.

The Illinois constitution also contains a provision requiring that the state’s budget be balanced. It’s right there in Section 2 of Article VIII: “Proposed expenditures shall not exceed funds estimated to be available for the fiscal year as shown in the budget,” and then it adds, “Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year.”

Of course, for several years now, that hasn’t been happening and debts, like the amount we owe our five pension funds, don’t get factored in properly.

Sheila Weinberg, founder of the government finance watchdog Truth in Accounting, tells me the state also has a law requiring a balanced budget, 15 ILCS 20. In the state’s 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, former Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka referenced that law and then noted, “The State has not presented revenue and expenditure estimates in accordance with these provisions.”

Former Comptroller Dan Hynes first started noting that violation of state law some time during his tenure in office from 1999-2011, Weinberg says.

As of last week, the state comptroller’s ledger showed we taxpayers are $4.37 billion behind in paying our bills. That’s only slightly better than the imbalance noted by Auditor General Bill Holland when he reviewed the 2012 annual financial report and concluded, “The state of Illinois did not have sufficient controls over its finances to ensure obligations are paid.”

Well, well. We’re not just violating the constitution by considering diminishing pension benefits. We’re already in violation of the constitution and laws by not funding a majority of all K-12 schooling and for not operating with a balanced budget.

Who will object to that? We should be arrested. Throw us in debtors’ prison. Ah, but wait. That would mean we can’t work to earn money to pay for the schoolchildren, our overdue bills and all of that $111 billion in pension debt, right? All of it. It’s downright criminal.

Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois.