This editorial appeared in the Feb. 3, 2019, edition of the (Champaign) News-Gazette:
State Comptroller Susana Mendoza is spending most of her time these days running for mayor of Chicago. But back at the office, her worker bees have been reviewing the state's finances, releasing a report last week that lays out the numbers.
Those looking for something to cheer them up should skip this horror story.
The state's budget picture is a shambles that will get dramatically worse if the strong national economy should take a wrong turn.
"Finally, certain uneven indicators measuring national economic trends reveal that state policy makers should be mindful that a downturn in the market is possible in the near future. As highlighted in the January 2019 Comptroller's Quarterly report, Illinois is woefully ill-prepared for an economic downturn given the state's massive liabilities and lack of contingency funds," the comptroller's report states.
For starters, the comptroller confirms what those who've been paying attention already knew — the 2018-19 state budget now in place was a masterpiece of flimflam and gimmickry that was balanced only on paper. Further, Illinois is in deep financial trouble that the hyperpartisan Mendoza, a Democrat, blamed solely on former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
"It will take years for our state to recover from the damage caused by the failed budgeting practices of the previous administration. The first step on that path is approving a responsible budget for the next fiscal year," Mendoza states.
Actually, the first step toward financially healing requires an honest acknowledgement that this state's financial problems go back for at least 20 years and that Republicans and Democrats have both been complicit in this epic disaster.
If the pols in Springfield can't admit something that obvious about the past, what's the hope for forthright decision-making in the future?
The comptroller reports that the state's unpaid bills totaled $6.9 billion in mid-December and that they can be expected to rise "between $1.5 billion and $2 billion" because of "budgeted revenue shortfalls" in the current budget.
In other words, the phony numbers in the current budget that no one believed haven't come to pass.
The comptroller outlined a series of revenue estimates that were phony.
There was $300 million for the sale of the Thompson Building in Chicago that never took place.
There was $445 million in assumed pension savings in connection with a plan that is not yet implemented, even as fiscal 2019 approaches an end.
There was a $285 million shortfall in estimated federal revenues.
Even in the face of unanticipated growth in sales- and income-tax revenues, the budget billed as balanced is deeply in the hole.
Unfortunately, there's more.
"Fiscal year 2020 will also see a $679.9 million increase in certified state contributions to the pension systems, a roughly $350 million increase in evidence-based funding for elementary and high schools, and $405.5 million in inter-fund borrowing due for repayment. As reported, an additional $170 million to $500 million in court-ordered state employee step adjustments, plus 7 percent per year interest, as a result of the collective bargaining agreement, is owed but has not been accounted for in terms of budget revenue," the report states.
There's a lot more to the comptroller's report. But readers get the idea — the state's finances have been, are and will remain a disaster from top to bottom.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has repeatedly called for tax increases to boost revenues, is scheduled to deliver a joint state of the state and budget address on Feb. 20 in Springfield. Thanks to unprecedented fiscal mismanagement, taxpayers should get ready for another assault on their wallets.