We in Illinois have a way of lowering expectations when it comes to our state government. For example, we are currently on our second consecutive governor who has not been convicted of a federal crime. Woohoo! And just last week lawmakers passed a full-year operating budget during the regular legislative session. Fantastic!
Not so fast.
Although Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the budget Monday, flanked by Democrats and Republicans, and although we are optimistic about his assertion the deal moves the state forward, it is fair to turn attention to actual analysis of the budget. Something being the product of negotiations comparatively free of contention doesn’t mean it actually improves things in our fiscally forlorn state.
On Tuesday, S&P Global Ratings released an analysis of the $38.5 billion spending plan, calling it “more of the same,” which is not exactly encouraging given we’ve already got the worst credit rating among all 50 states — one level above junk status, according to The Associated Press.
Sure, the timeliness is a good sign. And given the alternative of many more months of uncertainty, stopgap spending bills and intense partisan bickering, it’s nice to be in this lane for a bit. But S&P doesn’t have any emotions in the game, and so it’s useful for taxpayers to give heed to an indication the budget simply continues past practices of banking on revenue and savings that may not materialize.
One example is a reliance on $270 million from the sale of the James R. Thompson Center, a state office building in Chicago lawmakers have discussed selling for years. The budget also assumes savings from a pension buyout the agency describes as “uncertain” — a polite way of saying there’s not a real likelihood of recouping the projected $400 million —and doesn’t pay down billions in bills or set aside money for a reserve fund.
So as usual, we taxpayers find ourselves wondering when another shoe will drop. Sure, the budget doesn’t increase any tax rates — the last bump is generating more than expected, which is nice or naughty, depending on if you ask a government worker or a layperson — but if these projected savings and profits don’t materialize in full, then we’re still in the position of operating government we can’t afford.
That situation will, eventually, bring all the relevant players back to the same bargaining table. It might be after the November election, or even a few years down the road and so the faces could be different, but the problems will be real and familiar. Nothing will truly get better in Illinois fiscally until the money out equals the money coming in and lawmakers have firm control on both numbers.
Ideally we’d spend less than we earn and then actually save a little to manage future uncertainties. But again, this is Illinois, where we have lowered our expectations to much that even the good news is rarely more than a dimly silver lining.