Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly endorsed a revenue forecast for fiscal 2015 of $34.495 billion, based on the estimates of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the state of Illinois’ independent budget watchdog.
The figure represented an amount that would allow responsible investments in education, infrastructure and public safety, and took into account the expiration of the 2011 income tax increase, as the taxpayers of this state were promised. Unfortunately, in contradiction to the agreement, the Illinois House of Representatives recently approved a budget calling for spending to far exceed available revenue.
The House budget authorizes the state to spend $37.35 billion next year, almost 10 percent more than the spending targets set in February. Article VIII, Section 2 of the Illinois Constitution states that “appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year.”
The simple truth is that by authorizing Illinois to spend nearly $3 billion more than lawmakers estimate will be available, the House passed a fiscally irresponsible budget, and one that we believe to be unconstitutional.
Illinois’ economic woes are the result of decades of bad decisions made by Springfield politicians. Residents and employers are overtaxed and overregulated, while lawmakers have for years paid lip service to the balanced budget provision of the Constitution, approving wildly unrealistic revenue estimates as legal cover for excessive spending. This year, the steps went in reverse, but the dance was the same: The House voted to spend more than we will have in order to justify making the 2011 “temporary” income tax hike permanent. Rather than sticking to the plan agreed to earlier this year, and keeping a promise to the people, some legislators chose to double down on the failed policies of the past.
High taxes and an unbalanced budget have not worked, and it is clearly time to change course. Our state’s tepid recovery from the 2008 recession can be directly attributed to the conditions created by these choices: Our state has the highest unemployment rate the Midwest, and few companies seek to expand or locate in a state from which people are fleeing. Illinois is regularly cited by local and national business leaders as being hostile to job creation. Thousands of families are leaving every year and moving to states with greater economic opportunity, lower tax burdens and better public services. From July 2012 to July 2013, Illinois lost nearly 40,000 residents, the most of any state in the nation during that period.
The continuation of these failed policies will hinder the state’s ability to responsibly invest in the future, sticking taxpayers and future generations with higher bills every year. With billions of dollars in unpaid bills and late-payment fees already totaling hundreds of millions of dollars annually, another year in which the state assumes more debt, while further alienating the business community and driving more residents out, is clearly the wrong course.
The first step to fixing our state’s finances is to stop the bleeding and balance our budget going forward. This would eliminate any argument about the need to make an unnecessary, “temporary” tax hike permanent, and also send a signal to employers throughout the world that Illinois is serious about reform and open for business again.
Beyond the constitutional guarantee of a balanced budget, taxpayers have a moral right to be protected from paying for unjustified spending. The passage of the resolutions agreeing to Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s revenue estimates earlier this year was broad and bipartisan in both chambers of the General Assembly, while the recent budget bills passed the House by the narrowest of margins.
Clearly then, a bipartisan solution to the budget debate exists. We pledge to continue to defend Illinois’ taxpayers and to work together to produced a balanced, constitutional budget.
• Tom Cross is the Illinois state representative for the 97th District and the Republican nominee for state treasurer. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Marengo, is the Illinois state representative for the 63rd District.