It's time to change the state budget process
By Richard J. Winkel Jr.
Illinois is deep in debt. The complicated way that we make state budgets in Illinois is one major reason lawmakers made such shortsighted decisions in the past, causing our current fiscal problems.
According to the Fiscal Futures Project at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Illinois has "two huge fiscal problems: a large and growing gap between sustainable revenues and projected spending levels; and a largest-in-the-nation unfunded pension liability." Illinois policymakers deserve much credit for taking the necessary and difficult first steps through a tax increase and pension reform; however, they still have many miles to go on the road to solving the structural budget gap and restoring fiscal sustainability.
The Fiscal Futures Project has shown that this is a chronic problem — not just a short-term crisis. It is a problem that compounds over time, putting us so far in the hole that we won't be able to rely on economic growth — or singular policy changes — to dig ourselves out.
So, what more can Illinois do to balance the budget? The Fiscal Futures Project researchers recommended options that could reduce the growth of spending by dealing with specific elements of the state's current fiscal imbalance. They also recommended we change the way we make the state budget.
As a former state legislator, I agree. Let's get rid of the messy, complex and obscure budgeting process. This is an effort that requires all hands on deck — more lawmakers and citizens should be involved and should be demanding transparency.
We need 1) longer-term budgeting, 2) openness in the budget process, and 3) reduction of the use of special funds, which often obscure the fiscal condition.
We need a budget process that motivates planning several years ahead instead of shortsighted year-to-year planning. We need accurate, easily understood, and consistent budget reports without political bias. And we should make those reports accessible for independent review and analysis before the budget becomes law.
Many citizens — and even lawmakers — don't realize that Illinois has 380 state funds. We often only hear about the four General Funds. We need an open process that allows us to track money coming in and going out of every single fund. This type of transparency would be good for government — and at the very least will allow us to more accurately measure our debts.
By making the state budget process more open, reliable and straightforward, good legislators will be able to do what is best for the people they represent. It will bring back our confidence in state government and improve democracy.
Richard J. Winkel Jr. is director of the Office of Public Leadership at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. He was an Illinois state senator from 2003 to 2007, and an Illinois state representative from 1995 to 2003.