Illinois is not ungovernable, but its financial situation is rapidly becoming untenable. Without some real leadership and real compromises on the part of legislators in Springfield, the Land of Lincoln stands to decline even further.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, Chicago Democrats who control the Legislature, have been unable and at times unwilling to reach agreement with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who promised he would shake up Springfield. Instead, he has overseen a complete breakdown.
On Wednesday, legislators in Springfield are set to begin a special session that could last until June 30 and is aimed at crafting a budget agreement. Before they resume their familiar routine of finger-pointing and inaction, we ask that they remember that Illinois and its residents cannot afford this budget stalemate much longer.
At this point, some measure of pragmatism is needed to end the impasse that has damaged Illinois’ financial standing and its reputation. Our state is losing students, workers and families – and the economic activity they generate. Illinois has the lowest credit rating of any state, and the ratings of institutions that depend on state funding have been slashed as well, resulting in higher borrowing costs. The state’s backlog of unpaid bills is at $14 billion.
Another stopgap spending plan to keep the doors open at public schools and offer starvation rations to other institutions is not acceptable. The state can’t afford to pay what it committed to spend last year under such a plan, with school districts around the area saying they are owed millions for needs such as student transportation and special education.
Last week, Illinois Lottery officials said the state could be dropped from the multistate Powerball and Mega Millions games if it does not approve a budget plan. Revenue from these two games amounted to about $120 million in 2016.
At NIU, construction on the Stevens Building at Northern Illinois University will be put on hold again if a budget is not in place June 30. Another halt to work could again result in throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve the work already done, along with another setback in completing the addition to campus.
We have had enough of these embarrassments.
Here’s what Illinois needs by July 1:
• A balanced budget plan that calls for real spending cuts, across the board if necessary, to allow our state to live within its means and pay down its debt.
• Any increase in income taxes must be accompanied by a freeze in property taxes for Illinois’ stressed homeowners. If the property tax freeze is temporary, the income tax hike should be, as well.
• A resolution requiring the state to develop a plan for paying down its unfunded pension obligations within the next two years.
It is time for Democratic legislators to place the state’s people ahead of special interests.
Some of the items on Rauner’s “turnaround agenda,” such as term limits for lawmakers and a property tax freeze, are very popular. They demand a vote for which lawmakers will be accountable in the next election. It also is time for Rauner to lead a bipartisan effort to pass a spending plan for the state he was elected to govern.
Starting Wednesday, our leaders must trade grandstanding and finger-pointing for compromise and governance, for the good of all.