Approximately 60 Illinois daily and weekly newspapers ran editorials last week, many on their front pages, on the need for an end to the nearly two-year state budget impasse. The State Journal-Register editorial board shared this editorial and urged other newspapers to demand elected officials make passing a balanced budget their priority.
That one word perfectly sums up the pain, dysfunction and instability Capitol politicians have inflicted on Illinois by their failure to provide a permanent balanced state budget for two years.
As the state’s credit ratings have been repeatedly downgraded, as residents sought greener pastures elsewhere, as community colleges and universities have been gutted, as businesses closed up shop and as social service agencies turned away the most vulnerable residents, elected officials have failed to do their job and show political courage to make the necessary painful decisions.
Who they blame is determined by whether a D or R follows their name. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is to blame. No, it’s Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. Don’t forget the decades of politicians who made terrible financial decisions based on what would get them re-elected, not what was fiscally prudent.
The finger-pointing has gone on for far too long.
The state’s fiscal problems have created a crisis throughout Illinois — except in the state Capitol. Maybe the dome deflects the misery that permeates the rest of Illinois. But it can no longer shield elected officials from accepting the blame each member of the House and Senate, and the governor, bears for the atrocious state of the state.
The stack of unpaid bills climbed above $14 billion last week. The 2016 fiscal year, which ended last June, had a budgetary deficit of $9.6 billion; we shudder to think of what it’s going to be at the end of next month. The five state-funded pension systems are short about $130 billion. Each new financial report paints an even bleaker picture.
Still, every time progress seemed to have been made this year, it faded as quickly as it emerged because the need for a political win was more important. Because most Illinoisans have not been directly inconvenienced by the lack of a budget, it’s been easy to ignore.
But the impasse affects all of us. In order for the state to pay off its unpaid bills, shore up the pension systems and eliminate its deficit, it would cost every man, woman and child who lives in Illinois roughly $12,000 each.
Here’s how you calculate your share of the bill:
* If every one of the state’s 12.8 million residents kicked in $1,094, we could pay off the $14 billion in unpaid bills.
* The unfunded pension liability is an estimated $130 billion, due over the next 30 years. If we wanted to ensure today that it will be solvent, each resident would need to contribute $10,156 so state retirees will get their retirement benefits.
* Don’t forget the $9.6 billion structural budget deficit at the end of fiscal year 2016; add in $750 more per person.
The ugly truth is, we are all going to pay for it somehow. And because politicians have abdicated their most basic duty for two years, the necessary cuts will be deeper and tax hikes will be higher than they should be.
Are you seething yet?
Good. Now get informed on issues, and encourage others to do the same. There’s a reason that millions get spent on relentlessly nasty political ads — they work. They sway the casual voter who doesn’t care enough to dig for facts, or they leave others too disgusted by the spectacle and negativity to participate. Elections shouldn’t be decided by who can throw the most cash at attack ads. It’s up to all of us to keep that from being the determinant.
Next, get involved. Pick up your phone and call your state representative, senator and the governor’s office. Tell them how they have made it an embarrassment to be from Illinois. Share your anger that the significant issues that need attention — school funding reform, creating a thriving economy and building public universities into centers of innovation, to name a few — have been ignored.
A year ago we declared “Enough.” The day after, the governor and lawmakers passed a six-month stopgap spending plan that did not provide lasting stability. That’s not good enough.
It’s time to demand that Gov. Rauner and our lawmakers do what is right. It’s time for the budget to come first. To not do so will cement their legacy with one word that encapsulates the sorry condition of our state.