Is Illinois making progress in its battle with its budget? Maybe, maybe not.
It's been said many times, but still bears repeating.
The state of Illinois' serious financial woes did not happen overnight. It took years of irresponsible spending decisions by governors and legislators to create the financial nightmare that now haunts this state's residents.
It's also been said many times, and bears repeating, that financial problems of this magnitude cannot be solved overnight. It will take much serious work and many hard decisions (by leaders reluctant to make hard decisions) to dig our way out.
That reality was driven home this week by a report on state finances issued by the Chicago-based Civic Federation, the good government group that has had the audacity not just to identify problems but call for solutions.
The Civic Federation points out that Illinois has made a bit of progress in working its way out of debt, but stands poised to fall deeper into the hole without strong leadership by Gov. Pat Quinn and state legislators.
The Civic Federation points out that, assuming Illinois' current 2013 fiscal year budget is implemented as forecast, the state could reduce its backlog of unpaid bills by $1.3 billion. Now $1.3 billion is a lot of money, but, unfortunately, that sum represents just 14 percent of the bills owed. That leaves another $7.6 billion owed to hundreds of state vendors, many of which will feel a serious cash crunch.
The Civic Federation also contends that progress in reducing state debt could be undermined by the loss of anticipated budget savings in Medicaid and the increasing costs of pensions for public employees.
"The General Assembly has yet to reach consensus on a solution to the ongoing pension funding crisis and serious questions remain about the state's ability to achieve the savings projected in this budget," said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.
The federation specifically cited Medicaid as one program where anticipated savings may not be realized. Stricter enforcement of eligibility requirements was estimated to save $350 million, a sum the federation calls "unrealistic."
The federation may well be correct. It recently was disclosed that the Illinois Department of Health Care and Family Services does not expect to begin the process of scrubbing ineligible Medicaid recipients from the welfare rolls until January, halfway through the budget year.
Meanwhile, pension costs keep going up. Pension-related payments ate up 9 percent of the state's budget in 2008-09. They increased to 20.1 percent in the current year and will be even higher than that in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2013.
So while Illinois has taken one step forward, it looks to be in danger of taking two steps back, demonstrating once again that it's a lot easier to get into financial trouble than to get out of it.