Gov. J.B. Pritzker is hoping voters in November will bail out a state budget that takes effect in July.
A governor’s budget address is supposed to be about numbers that are shaped by the administration’s political priorities.
But Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s speech Wednesday to members of the Illinois General Assembly was more about politics than it was about spending.
Specifically, Pritzker included $1.4 billion of spending in his proposed $42 billion budget that the state doesn’t have and won’t get unless voters approve a state income tax increase in the fall election.
If the vote to repeal Illinois Constitution’s flat tax mandate doesn’t fly, Pritzker warned he’ll have less money to spend on a variety of important programs including K-12 and higher education.
That’s a solid political play — threatening to sow financial chaos amid popular programs unless he gets his way. Republicans were quick to denounce the governor’s “scare” tactics.
Unfortunately for the GOP, they have little-to-no political relevance in Springfield. So much, if not all, of what Pritzker proposed last week will be approved by the legislature and become effective for the budget year that begins July 1. If any major changes are made in the governor’s spending plan, they’ll be made by the super-majority Democrats in the House and Senate.
One possible area of pushback relates to Pritzker’s education proposal. Legislators, including new Senate President Don Harmon, predicted members of his caucus will want to increase K-12 spending by $350 million “regardless of the outcome in November.”
Pritzker said he wants to spend $350 million but would reduce that number to $200 million if the proposed repeal of the flat tax mandate is defeated. Given the emotional nature of the issue and Pritzker’s intent to use it as a club to induce voters to back him, this could be a point of substantial tension in the budget debate.
There are a few things that stand out like a sore thumb in the governor’s spending plan. Combined, they reveal the sham nature of state spending plans.
The biggest involves Pritzker’s pledge to put $8.6 billion into the state’s five woefully underfunded state pensions. That’s roughly 20 percent of the state budget, a number that reveals just how crippling the state’s public pension woes are.
Pritzker bragged that he will allocate all of the “statutorily” required pension money. But he somehow forgot to mention that what’s statutorily required is considerably less than what’s “actuarially” required. That’s why the state’s pension debt approaching $140 billion keeps going up.
To demonstrate that he’s tough on spending and looking to get the biggest bang for the buck, Pritzker recently embraced a plan to cut expenditures by $225 million. That’s a lot of money, but, unfortunately, not a lot of money in the context of state spending.
Financial analysts at Wirepoints note that $225 million “represents less than one percent of the 2021 budget,” which increases state spending by $2 billion from the current 2019-20 state budget.
In another effort to show his fiscal tough-mindedness, Pritzker announced he wants to put $10 million in the state’s rainy day fund. Perhaps symbolically potent, all that it means is that the state will be even slower in paying its stack of $7.2 billion in unpaid bills.
Finally, he again spoke of the importance of presenting a budget that balances spending with revenue, something that, like last year, he failed to do.
While acknowledging Comptroller Susana Mendoza in the audience, Pritzker neglected to acknowledge her recent report on the state’s financial status.
It revealed the depth of state existing debt — $214.5 billion — as well as the $3.4 billion deficit in the state’s current budget.
The state’s financial picture is so bleak that Pritzker felt required to acknowledge financial “challenges.” At the same time, he lambasted those who do not share views as “pessimists” unworthy of attention and portraying himself as an incurable “optimist.”
He has a point about those who are relentlessly negative. They’re not much fun to be around. But in Illinois’ case, they would be better described as sober realists who point out that problems ignored, generally speaking, do not go away. They just get worse.
Just as he pledged in his campaign, Pritzker’s proposed cure involves raising taxes and raising spending. But the people of Illinois have a say about that, and it just may be that they’ve had their fill of both.