Gov. Pat Quinn made strong points but few friends when he outlined the bad news in his annual budget address.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn delivered his annual budget address Wednesday before a not-particularly-friendly audience at the Capitol in Springfield.
Why wasn't his reception warmer? Perhaps because members of the Illinois House and Senate knew that Quinn was going to belabor the obvious — the state's dire financial status that stems from its frightful pension woes.
"I stand ready to sign comprehensive pension reform immediately. Today. But I cannot sign what I do not have on my desk. The people of Illinois need your immediate action," Quinn said. "This year's budget is a tough pill to swallow. But it's only managing the symptoms of a grievous condition that threatens the fiscal health of our state. If we are to ensure a bright future for the people of Illinois, we must cure this condition. We must enact fundamental pension reform."
If Quinn's warning sounds familiar, it should. He has been, for good reason, a broken record on the subject of the state's debt, deficits and its linkage to the $96 billion underfunding in its public pension systems.
But just as Quinn has repeatedly urged our legislators to address the state's pension problems, legislators have repeatedly refused to do so. They have been, in a sense, frozen in place, refusing to take steps to fix a problem that the irresponsibility of past governors and legislators created and inaction by current legislators has made infinitely worse.
Because Illinois must make $7 billion in pension payments — roughly 20 percent of a proposed $35.6 billion general operating budget — it does not have enough money to finance core state functions. That's why Quinn described his spending plan — one that cuts elementary, secondary and higher education by $400 million — his "most difficult budget ever."
To be more accurate, it will be his "most difficult" budget ever until next year if legislators don't act.
Budget proposals like Quinn's inevitably bury their audience in numbers, to the point that it takes days or weeks to sort them out and put them into context.
The tenor of his address was unmistakable — the state is way late in taking necessary action.
"Without pension reform, within two years, Illinois will be spending more on public pensions than on education. As I said to you a year ago, our state cannot continue on this path," he said.
Quinn and legislative leaders, principally House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, now will begin the formal budget process. There will be disagreements on spending priorities as well as the usual public posturing that goes with it.
But mostly there will be cries of pain from the various constituencies whose needs are not met in the state budget — law enforcement, education, mental health, roads and bridges, the working poor, the unemployed. Almost everyone already has been or will be hit by the need to hold the line on spending to feed the pension beast.
Some may attribute the state's budget woes to the crippling recession and the lagging recovery, and to be sure, that has played a role. But citizens of Illinois can look around to neighboring states and see that none are in as sorry a condition.
That's a sad testimonial to the mismanagement, incompetence and corruption that has led Illinois down the path of effective bankruptcy.
Quinn was absolutely correct when he said Illinois cannot go on in the future the way it has in the past. Surely, legislators were listening this time and will finally summon the courage to act.