For more than two years, Illinois fell apart pretty steadily as Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Legislature fought over the state’s budget.
Now, for the first time since taking office in 2015, Rauner has signed a budget, and Illinois will fall apart more slowly.
Tuesday was Reality Check Day for the governor. He finally put aside his list of “turn-around” demands, such as sticking it to labor unions at every opportunity, and signed a budget that will allow the state to pay its bills, more or less. It provides more appropriate funding for essentials such as universities, schools and child welfare services.
We don’t know if Rauner even now appreciates the damage his intransigence in the past has done, throwing the state’s finances up for grabs — boy, the credit rating agencies hated that — and eroding the quality of higher education and social services. But he certainly didn’t want to look like a loser again, not with an election coming up. So he signed a budget.
Good for him. The man can learn. Better a budget that fails to solve all problems than no budget at all.
Now, though, begins the truly hard working of setting Illinois right.
The state’s backlog of bills stands at $6.6 billion and the new budget does little to address that problem. And the state’s massive pension debt — more than $130 billion in unfunded liabilities — just keeps growing. If nothing more is done, fully a third of the state’s annual revenue soon will be used to pay such fixed costs as the interest on old bills and pension obligations.
Rauner is running from reality on that score. No sooner did he sign the 2019 fiscal year budget, which relies significantly on $5 billion in additional revenue from an income tax hike last year, than he vowed to roll back the tax hike.
For a Republican, promising to cut taxes, no matter what the fiscal reality, is always a crowd-pleaser.
But short of beating up on universities and social services again, we can’t see how Rauner would make that work. Illinois can’t wish away an ocean of red ink. Good politics can make miserable policy.
A better partial solution, as we have argued for years — long before J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic candidate for governor, took up the cause — would be for Illinois to revise its constitution and adopt a graduated state income tax. This would make it possible for Illinois to raise the extra revenue it sorely needs by taxing at a higher rate those who can most afford it.
Other partial solutions to our state’s long-term fiscal woes might include reducing government spending by enacting a constitutional amendment to allow Illinois to reduce future public pension benefits, taxing retirement income for higher-income individuals and expanding the sales tax to include services, not just goods.
The state’s new $38.5 billion budget has other obvious weaknesses, as well. It figures in a savings of $445 million from a state pension buyout program that is entirely untested. Maybe enough former state employees and retirees will accept lump sum payments for the state to achieve the savings, but maybe not.
The budget also counts on $300 million from the long-stalled sale of the Thompson Center in the Loop. Maybe the building will sell in time, but maybe not.
The race for governor is heating up by the week. When two super-rich guys go at it, there’s not much need for down time between expensive TV ad buys.
In this election, the greatest service Rauner and Pritzker can do for their state is to be bluntly honest — about taxes, about the need to rein in pensions, about the sacrifices and pain it will take to get Illinois back on track.
Tell it straight.
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