No money means no fun for Illinois legislators reviewing the governor's budget plan.
Announcing a "rendezvous with reality," Gov. Pat Quinn Wednesday released details of a $33.8-billion state general fund budget plan filled with spending cuts and facility closings while simultaneously inviting legislators to help him clean up a fiscal disaster decades in the making.
So it was no surprise that legislators — both Republicans and Quinn's fellow Democrats — sat in sullen silence throughout Quinn's 30-minute address.
Quinn didn't mince words. He said the state's Medicaid program is on the brink of collapse, that skyrocketing state pension costs must be contained and that prison and mental health facilities must be closed.
"They impact every region in our state, but the need for lower spending in our budget gives us no choice," Quinn said.
Talking with reporters afterwards, House Speaker Michael Madigan said "the message was very clear, concise for the members of the Legislature."
Left unsaid by Madigan was whether legislators will accept the governor's plan, especially during an election year. But the initial response was not encouraging. Quinn's proposed cuts drew near-universal complaints from legislators intent on protecting jobs, programs and facilities in their home districts.
It may well be that Quinn's proposed budget is deficient in some, or many, respects. But serious alternatives will be hard to come by because the governor and legislators have created far more spending programs than they have money to spend.
Tax revenue is expected to go up roughly $750 million in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. But even that healthy increase is insufficient to meet the exploding costs of Medicaid and public pension programs.
As we've stated many times before, these programs are consuming more and more of the money needed to keep the core functions of state government in operation.
That's why Quinn emphasized, once again, how important it is that he and legislators work together to find ways to bring Medicaid and public pension costs under control.
Although the presentation of a budget by the governor is a significant event, it is but the first step of the legislative appropriations process. Last year's budget plan was rewritten by Speaker Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, marking the first time in years that legislators had taken such an active role in producing a budget.
The rewrite represented not only their disenchantment with Quinn's budget plan, but also Quinn's lack of influence with his fellow Democrats who control both the House and Senate.
This year's budget likely will undergo the same scrutiny. But legislators will find few palatable alternatives unless they, yet again, simply dodge coming to grips with the fiscal reality.
Although he spoke extensively of budget cuts, Quinn's proposed budget is up slightly to $33.8 billion, up 1.5 percent over the current budget.
Quinn has taken considerable criticism in the news media as well as from state legislators for his handling of state finances. Obviously, he's made his share of mistakes. But he did not create this financial disaster, which would challenge even the most astute political manager.
What usually happens in dire circumstances like these is that politicians start looking either for new revenue or for ways to dump their financial problems in someone else's lap.
A tax hike is a political impossibility until after the November general election, when Quinn and state legislators may be tempted to pass another post-election tax hike. Some legislators, however, have hinted they'd like to transfer the state's responsibility for funding the Teachers' Retirement System to local school boards, a possibility that would could cause dramatic increases in local property taxes.
As for Medicaid, Quinn and legislators have suggested they'll address the cost problem by cutting the reimbursement rate to medical providers. But all that would mean is that fewer medical providers would participate in the Medicaid program.
So make no mistake about it. Much as our legislators would love easy answers, there are none available. Quinn has kicked off the budget debate by painting a stark future of what happens when too much government comes face to face with too little revenue.
Now legislators will have their turn tackling the problem, and the results, whatever they are, won't be pretty.