This editorial was published in the Dec. 20, 2020 edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker came face to face with state budget realities last week, and it wasn’t pretty.
Presenting $711 million in proposed budget cuts that he called just the beginning of plans to eliminate a $3.9 billion budget deficit, he simultaneously blamed Republicans for his budget woes and sought help from unionized state employees in reducing payroll.
Union representatives rejected the governor’s proposal for $75 million in “personnel cost adjustments” but said they would back any plans he has to raise taxes.
The Republicans’ response wasn’t any warmer than that of union leaders.
They asked who Pritzker thought he was kidding, noting they didn’t put together what they called the governor’s “fantasy” budget and, being a superminority in the Legislature, lack the power to do so.
That’s not a great start for Pritzker’s rendezvous with budget destiny, but it is revealing.
The upcoming battle of the budget cuts will feature the usual political posturing and a load of blame-shifting as Pritzker and legislators try to avoid responsibility for the tough decisions ahead.
That’s not a great surprise, because the governor’s $40 billion-plus 2020-21 state budget was constructed on a foundation of shifting sand. Circumstances were made infinitely worse by the economic lockdowns he has put in place to address the coronavirus pandemic.
The governor also came down on the wrong side of an ill-advised bet. He and legislators passed a budget that relied on increased revenue generated by his proposed progressive income-tax amendment to the Illinois Constitution.
The amendment, as most people know, was decisively rejected at the polls Nov. 3. That means money the Legislature didn’t have when it was appropriated will not be forthcoming.
So where does everyone go from here?
Frankly, it’s impossible to say. Pritzker has proposed $711 million in budget cuts for which supermajority Democrats have no appetite.
They include $425 million in savings generated by reductions in grants and operating costs across a variety of programs, including public safety, human services and health care.
The governor has the authority to order most of his announced cuts, but he’ll have to negotiate with hostile union leaders on the furlough days.
There’s a sea of numbers associated with the complicated budget problems.
But generally speaking, Pritzker has tried to avoid cuts through borrowing and counting on revenue from the failed tax amendment and lots of luck.
Unfortunately, what luck he’s had has been bad, at least for the current budget year. Now he’s confronting the consequences of that bad luck and finding himself and his party in, to say the least, a difficult situation.
All of Pritzker’s political instincts are averse to budget reductions. He wants to spend more, not less. That’s why he will inevitably propose more tax increases.
His party certainly has the votes for that, but the question is whether enough of these always-tax-averse legislators have the will to follow Pritzker’s lead.