Illinois lawmakers punt on budget, taxpayers lose

Staff Writer
Chillicothe Times-Bulletin

Someday, Illinoisans may have an opportunity to laud the Illinois legislature’s budget-crafting skills as masterful, fearless or forward looking.

This is not that day, even though the bar is set pretty low any more.

All lawmakers had to do by the end of the spring legislative session was to meet a couple of fairly manageable expectations: be brave, be responsible.

But here we are. Lawmakers went home early May 31 having passed a $35.7 billion budget, based on improper revenue projections, which probably will lead to borrowing, an increase in the state’s backlog of unpaid bills and other fallout.

They made no attempt to bring stability to the state’s finances or provide clarity for taxpayers about expectations going forward. Instead, lawmakers chose simply to, as some say, “kick the can down the road.”

That’s a misnomer, in our view. What Illinois legislators face is more like a giant, hulking barrel full of debt, crisis and uncertainty that they must muscle up a steep hill after years of hoping it would just go away.

Unfortunately for Illinoisans, their elected representatives still appear to lack the courage to get the job done and are content to let the crisis ride until after the November election.

Lawmakers this spring had a couple of options. They could have bitten the bullet and made permanent the 2011 “temporary” personal and corporate income tax hikes that would have kept about $1.8 billion of revenue flowing in and stave off further cuts to public education and state services. Sure, many of them would have taken heat for it at the polls in November, but legislating is about difficult choices and doing what’s best for the greater good.

They also could have buckled down and made the kinds of cuts — difficult, heart-wrenching cuts — necessary to make the state’s spending and revenue match up. But that was too much to ask, too.

No one is blameless in all of this. Democrats pitched the personal and corporate income tax hikes as a temporary measure from the beginning, but then asked to make them permanent — a shifty move in the eyes of taxpayers who already feel tapped out.

Republicans, as well as many Democrats, criticized the tax move, but were unwilling to identify major cuts needed to accommodate a nearly $2-billion-lighter budget.

Instead, they all punted, and the earliest this debate is likely to resurface is the post-election November lame-duck session.

Credit-rating agencies already are firing warning shots. Moody’s this week said the lost revenue from allowing the temporary tax hike to lapse as scheduled Dec. 31 could harm the “significant progress” Illinois had made paying down its backlog of bills.

“The state has used an estimated $26 billion of increased income tax revenues since 2011 to address its pension contribution requirements and to reduce a large backlog of payments to vendors, municipalities, public universities and other entities,” Moody’s said in a statement. “The $5.6 billion backlog the governor’s budget estimated for June 30, 2014, would represent a 43 percent drop from a $9.9 billion peak set in 2010.”

We disagree with Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, who said that, “The biggest winners here in this session were the taxpayers who were spared the certain extension of the income tax,” adding, “Clearly this issue is not over. The Democrats want to make the tax increase permanent.”

The taxpayers of Illinois came out of this legislative session anything but winners. Because lawmakers did not act, Illinoisans now will pay for lawmakers’ fecklessness in the form of such things as interest on the borrowing that will occur to make ends meet, on higher interest rates after the state’s worst-in-the-nation credit rating is downgraded again and on interest accrued on overdue bill payments.

Illinois taxpayers are by no means winners, by any definition, in all of this.

All we can do now is hope that lawmakers set aside time this summer, when they’re not campaigning, to develop some workable budget solutions that enable Illinois to take a step forward instead of three steps back come November.

—GateHouse News Service