Clash over limited cash

Clash over limited cash

Too many are competing for too little.

Understandably frustrated over the state's inability to pay money they say the state owes them, a coalition of social service providers is asking the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene.

The so-called Pay Now coalition filed the request Thursday with the Illinois Supreme Court. It contends coalition members are owed $160 million and wants the court to order the state to pay.

Tellingly, the coalition also is asking the court to explain why state employees are being paid, but they aren't.

The explanation is as simple as it is unpalatable. The state can't pay the money because it doesn't have the money. Its only option is to pick and chooses what and when it can pay, a process that inevitably puts some creditors ahead of others.

That responsibility generally falls into the lap of Comptroller Leslie Munger, whose office reports that the state's unpaid bills last week stood at $9.9 billion. It won't be long before the state hits the $10 billion mark, an impressive, if thoroughly lamentable, sum.

One wonders what the court can do, if anything, to appease the coalition members. It could, theoretically, order the state to pay the providers. But that would mean not paying someone else.

Unless the justices have a printing press hidden away in the law library and are prepared to start cranking out $100 bills, the situation does not look like one the court can — or should — try to resolve. It's strictly a matter for the executive branch, led by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, and the Democrat-controlled legislative branch, led by Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, to resolve.

So far, they have fallen short of their joint responsibilities to sit down and settle their differences with the usual political compromise. That's why the near future is looking pretty much like the recent past — lots of rhetoric but little progress on a budget agreement.

As Election Day approaches, it's obvious to all who are paying attention that Illinois is in dire financial straits. It hasn't passed a real balanced budget in 20-plus years, relying on accounting gimmicks, so-called pension holidays, the nonpayment of bills and tax increases to paper over the ever-widening financial hole.

From a financial management standpoint, those practices are self-destructively unsustainable. From a political perspective — the only perspective many Illinois politicians really care about — it worked well enough to fool the public for a while.

But with nearly $10 billion in unpaid bills, $110 billion-plus in underfunded state pensions and budget deficits year after year, no one can credibly argue that the status quo is, in any way, tolerable.

But tolerate it, Illinoisans do. They've become acclimated to dysfunctional and corrupt government, to the point that the general public, with one exception, doesn't even put much effort into pressuring our legislators to pressure their leaders — Democrat and Republican — to work out the compromise that is necessary to settle the current budget debate.

That exception involved the start of the school year. State leaders were so concerned that the lack of a 2016-17 budget might leave K-12 public schools closed in September they got together on a temporary budget that will expire after the election.

They feared public reaction then, and they'd fear it now if there was widespread concern about the governor and the legislature's refusal to negotiate a compromise that includes budget cuts, the tax increases Madigan wants and the structural reforms Rauner wants.

Elections are supposed to settle disputes like this because, theoretically at least, they send messages from the governed to those who govern. But legislative elections in Illinois don't mean much because most of the House and Senate districts have been gerrymandered to produce a pre-determined result.

That's pretty much why the new legislature that takes office in 2017 is going to look a lot like the old legislature.

But one thing is certain — Illinois needs a new look if it's ever going to have a thriving economy that generates the natural tax revenue growth that is necessary to meet all its obligations. Until that happens, the public can expect to see special pleaders like Pay Now try to work their way to the front of the long line of creditors who want, but cannot be, paid now.

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