This editorial appeared in the Jan. 18, 2019, edition of the (Champaign) News-Gazette:
A change in personalities at the top of the political ladder is always exciting, the public optimism associated with turnover usually representing a triumph of hope over experience.
That's why Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker took the state by storm this week, starting with his inauguration on Monday and followed by a downstate appearance to promote jobs, issuing executive orders and signing legislation.
As his tenure lengthens over what will be a four-year term, Pritzker won't continue to dominate the news and editorial pages. But, for now at least, he's the man. The public is watching with interest, hoping he'll lead our sorry state to the promised land of balanced budgets, prudent financial management and fiscal solvency.
But Illinois will never get there if Pritzker repeats the mistakes of the past — spending money the state doesn't have. That's why it was disturbing that one of Pritzker's first actions this week involved spending more money the state doesn't have.
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner engaged in a four-year battle with unionized state employees, a conflict driven mostly by what he saw as excessive pay and benefits and the lack of resources needed to maintain them.
That's why Rauner and AFSCME, a union representing thousands of state employees, were unable to reach agreement on a new contract. Long since expired, one of Pritzker's duties includes concluding the AFSCME talks.
As part of that battle, Rauner denied step increases to employees, citing a lack of state appropriations.
Pritzker, who ran for election with strong union support, moved swiftly on that issue, immediately ordering the step increases.
Some might consider that action to be a simple matter of economic justice. After all, step increases were guaranteed under the terms of a union contract, even if the contract had expired.
That's why a Pritzker spokeswoman said he moved "quickly to make employees whole for the wages they have been wrongfully denied since 2015."
That's one side of the argument.
The other side is that, for starters, the state doesn't have the money to pay the increased wages, and, further, Pritzker's office either didn't or couldn't say how much the raises will cost.
Pritzker's spokeswoman said "... it will take several weeks to provide an accurate picture of cost."
The word "provide" is an interesting choice of language because it can be read in two ways.
It could mean the Pritzker administration knows the cost but intends to wait a while before providing it to the news media. A more benign, but no less concerning, interpretation is that the Pritzker administration doesn't know how much it's committed to spend.
Estimates have varied on the cost, the Rauner administration predicting late last year that it would be about $200 million.
A fiscal analyst at Wirepoints, Mark Glennon, suggested Pritzker's rapprochement with AFSCME might be significantly higher.
The administration's unwillingness and/or inability to provide cost figures drew fire because it significantly undermines its credibility with respect to fiscal issues.
Public employees who've gone without step increases deserve sympathy.
But it's important to remember that one of the reasons Illinois is in a huge financial hole is because so many elected officials felt a moral obligation to spend money the state did not have.
There are those who say that can't be done, but they're wrong. Illinois has been spending money it doesn't have for years.
But the bill eventually comes due. To listen to Pritzker's inaugural address, it would appear that bill is due now. That's why he said the state faces tough decisions in the future.
But spending money the state doesn't have isn't a tough decision. In fact, it's easy — all that's required is getting buried deeper and deeper in debt, as the state did once again this week.