New Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been crowing about his accomplishments during the recent legislative session, perhaps none more than his Svengali-like accomplishment passing what he calls a "balanced budget."
"We achieved something that has eluded state government for decades. We passed a real balanced budget. Just a few years ago, passing a budget was considered nearly impossible, and for years before that, the budget included gimmicks and tricks and was balanced in name only. Those days are over," Pritzker said.
Not everyone is buying Pritzer's story. Indeed, to hear some tell it, what he characterizes as financial prudence sounds more like a story spun by Gov. Pinocchio.
"Pay no heed to Gov. Pritzker's latest budget victory lap or the 'new era of fiscal stability.' Illinois' alarming budget gap speaks for itself," writes Sheila Weinberg, chief executive of Truth in Accounting.
"Pritzker's claim is simply not true. According to the state's own actuarial calculations, his budget is billions in the red," claims Wirepoints' analysts Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner.
Pritzker's $40.6 billion budget spends "as much as $1.3 billion more than the state will bring in for the fiscal year that starts July 1," claims Adam Schuster, budget director at the Illinois Policy Institute.
The wonks have analyzed Pritzker's budget and found the usual gamesmanship, flim-flam and phony estimates that combine to create a balanced budget fiction.
Two of the analysts cite serious pension funding issues that knock Pritzker's budget out of whack, while the third simply looks at projected revenues compared to real spending.
Weinberg notes that Illinois claims to be "fully funding" its pension obligations, and it is by its own lax standards. But she said the state still is spending less than actuarially required, explaining why the state's pension under-funding debt keeps growing. It was $133 billion in the 2018 budget year, jumped to $136 billion in the current 2019 fiscal year and will increase to $139 billion in the 2020 budget year.
She noted that Illinois contributed $8.4 billion to pensions in the current budget year, well short of the "minimum level pension actuaries suggest." As a consequence, the current budget, which expires on June 30, is "at least $4.9 billion out of balance, despite speculative media reports of a $150 million surplus."
Dabrowski and Klingner point out that "a big reason for the unbalanced budget comes from how politicians account for the state's retirement debts versus how professionals do."
"There's often a gap of several billion dollars between the two," Dabrowski and Klingner write.
"Illinois is not unlike the financial deadbeat that never pays the minimum payments on his credit card. As a result, its debt just grows," they write.
The IPI's Schuster looked simply at projected revenues compared to the $40.6 billion spending plan for 2019-2020.
He noted that legislators approved 21 tax and fee hikes — seven of which are estimated to generate an additional $1.07 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1. (The other 14 tax and fee hikes will produce revenue for the $45 billion infrastructure plan.)
Of that additional $1.07 billion, $57 million in marijuana taxes is included in the budget, even though lawmakers said they "aren't counting" on that sum to be generated in the first year. There also have been conflicting revenue estimates, $38.1 billion in March that was increased to $38.9 billion after a surprise jump in April tax revenues.
Based on the two estimates, Schuster's projected state budget deficit for the 2019-20 fiscal year ranges from $574 million to $1.3 billion.
Those numbers could increase dramatically if the strong national economy slips into a recession.
Politicians claim the budget is balanced every year," Schuster writes. "But Illinois has spent more money than it brought in every year since 2001."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.