Jim Dey | Pritzker playing the budget blame game

Jim Dey | Pritzker playing the budget blame game

Illinois' new governor is scheduled to deliver a budget address Wednesday in Springfield, where he'll discuss details of the state's significant financial embarrassment.

There's no mystery as to what he'll say — state finances are the equivalent of a dumpster fire contained in a sewage facility locked inside a failing nuclear power plant.

There's no way Pritzker, who took office last month, can or will sugarcoat it.

But there is something he and his political associates want the public to understand — the current sad state of affairs is all the fault of his ousted Republican predecessor, Bruce Rauner.

That political line was foreshadowed earlier this month when Comptroller Susana Mendoza issued a report on state finances that cited the "failed budgeting practices of the previous administration."

The Pritzker administration built on that narrative of blame last week when Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes issued an 11-page "Rauner wreckage" report that blamed Rauner for all the state's financial ills and concluded that his administration was an epic disaster.

"For anyone who reviews the state's finances, these years were such an anomaly that they will forever have an asterisk beside them," Hynes said.

Not to worry, however. Hynes assured Illinoisans that Pritzker will lead Illinois on "a multi-year path forward to fiscal stability and a new prosperity for Illinois."

Finger-pointing, of course, is nothing new in politics, and when circumstances go south — as they have in this state — the practice goes into overdrive.

But the Pritzker line that it's all Rauner's fault appears to ignore the reason that Republican Rauner was elected governor of this Democratic state in November 2014 — Illinois was a financial basket case in desperate need of resuscitation.

How bad was it?

Well, it was so bad that Hynes, now the deputy governor but then the state comptroller, unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in the March 2014 Democratic Party primary. Among Hynes' reasons for running was the shabby state of Illinois' finances.

Hynes, however, is right in one respect — Rauner is a failed governor.

The self-made multi-millionaire businessman ran on the platform of overturning the rancid political status quo, naively hoping that he and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly could find common ground.

But Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan mutually failed spectacularly in that endeavor, and the result of that joint failure is that state finances are even worse now than they were in January 2015, when Rauner took office.

As an example of that failure, Hynes cited the estimated $3.2 billion deficit in the current 2018-19 state budget, the one described as balanced when it was passed last year. Illinois hasn't passed a balanced budget since 2001.

The comptroller's office reports that, as of Feb. 14, the current backlog of unpaid bills is $7.2 billion. Hynes stated that it is "likely to be $500 million more than previously stated" by June 30.

The amount of unpaid bills has fluctuated up and down for years and is expected to continue to increase substantially because the state doesn't have enough money to pay them. But that's not a Rauner phenomenon — unpaid bills stood at $9 billion in 2013.

Underfunding of state pensions increased from $111 billion to $133 billion during Rauner's four years in office. That proves that problems that are ignored get worse, just as what happened from 2004 to 2014 when pension under-funding jumped from $35 billion to $105 billion.

Hynes noted a steady series of credit downgrades from ratings agencies, including the unfulfilled threat to reduce Illinois' bond rating to "junk" status.

There were eight credit downgrades under Rauner, an outrageous number but still less than the 13 downgrades that occurred under Quinn, according to state financial reports.

Illinois' pathetic bond credit rating — the lower the rating, the higher the interest rates the state must pay to borrow money — is nothing new.

According to Moody's, by 2010, Illinois had the worst bond rating in all 50 states.

In a financial catastrophe as large as the state of Illinois, it's simply not credible to argue that one person or one political party is solely to blame. Illinois' slide to its current state of financial degradation has gone on too long and covered the tenures of too many governors and state legislators to fall into a single lap.

Gov. Pritzker, of course, knows that. He's just hoping that if he and his underlings assign all the blame to Rauner loud enough and long enough, people who don't know any better — or don't want to know any better — will buy the sophistry he's selling.

It was bad four years ago. It's worse now. Given the way this state operates, chances are better than even things will be even worse four years from now.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-3513-5369.

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