A budget? Sort of

A budget? Sort of

Legislators may have passed a budget, but the state's serious fiscal problems remain.

Illinois' epic budget battle ended Thursday after 737 days of increasing financial chaos that strained the operation of public universities, caused some social service agencies that rely on state dollars to close and pushed the state's backlog of unpaid bills to around $15 billion.

The politics of what happened are clear. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan achieved another grand political victory, one that will further cement his reputation as the straw that stirs the drink in Illinois.

He got what he wanted — a $5 billion increase in the state's personal income and corporate taxes — and beat back what he didn't want — the economic reforms Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner sought to jump-start the state's lagging economy.

Even sweeter for Madigan, he did all this after splintering GOP opposition to the Democratic position.

But if the politics of what occurred are crystal clear, the policy implications are considerably clouded because Illinois has, once again, doubled-down on the failed status quo, albeit with higher taxes to keep the state government wheezing along.

Just how long and how far it will wheeze is the big question now.

The legislative Republicans who abandoned Gov. Rauner to join the Democrats cited, among other things, their concerns that Moody Investor Service would downgrade the status of Illinois' bonds to "junk" level if they did not support the budget proposal. That may happen anyway because Moody's isn't persuaded that the budget package that did pass will do the job.

Moody's Investors Service warned that Illinois still faces a credit downgrade because the new $36.1 billion plan doesn't adequately address the state's horrendous pension woes and its backlog of unpaid bills. It seems that the state's practice of continuing to borrow from Peter to pay Paul still doesn't inspire confidence in the financial sector.

"It's not clear to me that they won't quickly find themselves with a comparable backlog and more long-term bonded debt," said Moody's analyst Ted Hampton.

Even supporters of the proposed budget are less than enthusiastic.

A spokeswoman the Chicago-based Civic Federation said the budget is "not a panacea" but "a building block to move the state forward."

A building block? That would suggest that other steps are necessary to lift Illinois out of its effectively bankrupt state, perhaps some of the economic reforms Gov. Rauner suggested. But it's those same reforms — changes in worker's compensation and property taxes to name just two — that Speaker Madigan refuses to seriously consider.

It's no great surprise that some of the Republicans who abandoned Gov. Rauner are holding out hope that negotiations will continue on the broad array of GOP proposals that were under discussion when Democrats, first in the Senate and then in the House, made their budget move.

State Rep. Steven Andersson, a Geneva Republican, insists that "we're not done."

"But we're moving in the right direction. Impasse politics do not work," he said.

Actually, impasse politics do work, as Speaker Madigan demonstrated. What didn't work was the GOP effort to use budget leverage to persuade Democrats to give ground on Rauner's reform package.

Those Republicans, like Andersson, who think Democrats now will be willing to accommodate them should consider the following.

Madigan held out for two years under real pressure to deny Rauner a legislative victory. So why would he made concessions now that he has a clear win in his pocket?

That doesn't mean, of course, that Speaker Madigan, sly fox that he is, won't authorize some faux reforms — or maybe even real reform on an issue that neither he nor his campaign donors care about — designed to give the impression of substantive action.

Illinois' campaign spending rules give an impression of substance. But the legislation was drafted to provide neither oversight or accountability. That's the model on which the powers that be rely on.

It's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good. So with a budget, inadequate though it is, finally in place, the bleeding will stop. But it won't be long before the fiscal gangrene sets in.

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