Illinois is close to leading the nation in the worst of ways.
A monthly report recently released by legislative financial overseers painted a relatively positive picture of Illinois’ short-term finances.
Increases in state tax revenues were “amazing” last year and continue to be strong this year, according to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
Unpaid bills to state vendors that once were in the billions have been paid. At the same time, the state’s rainy-day cash fund, an account used to address short-term cash-flow problems, has been restored from less than $10 million to $1 billion and growing.
Given what Illinois has been through in recent years, that news comes as a breath of fresh air.
But, unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s far from it.
Illinoisans may be able to catch their breath on the short-term financial front. But the long-term picture remains perilous, and that’s putting a positive spin on it.
Illinois remains a state whose financial picture falls in the “worst” category.
In fact, in a status report published by Colossicus Content and based on research by the Chicago-based Truth-in-Accounting, Illinois ranks No. 3 on the list of the “Worst 10 State Finances.”
This, of course, is nothing Illinoisans haven’t heard before. It’s just that they haven’t heard it recently, particularly from second-term-seeking Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
From his perspective, it’s all seashells and balloons. Things are so good, in fact, that he sold irresponsible legislators on a nearly $2 billion election-year tax cut.
Illinois’ sorry finances, of course, are not all his fault. He inherited a financial disaster, just like his predecessor (Bruce Rauner) inherited a financial disaster, just like ... well, readers get the idea.
Illinois’ financial woes have been built over the years.
“The Land of Lincoln likes to silently move into a worse financial position like a glacier, steadily and quietly,” the report states. “For the year 2021, Illinois had also underfunded its pension funds and retiree health care funds. And once again, it’s been like this for years.”
Illinois’ negative financial standing stems mostly from its penchant for diverting money owed to its public pensions into other programs.
The report estimates the state’s overall debt is roughly $236 billion, a burden representing $57,000 per individual taxpayer.
Hard times are coming in the form of tax increases, spending cuts or both. There’s just no getting around financial problems this big.
The good news, of course, is that things could be worse for Illinois.
It could be Connecticut, which finished No. 1 in the “worst” category, or New Jersey, which finished No. 2.
The other seven “worst” states are No. 4 Massachusetts, No. 5 Hawaii, No. 6 Delaware, No. 7 Kentucky, No. 8 Vermont, No. 9 California and No. 10 New York.
Only one of Illinois’ six neighboring states — Kentucky — made the top 10 “worst” list. What have their elected officials got that Illinois doesn’t, besides a sense of financial responsibility?
Although long-term finances are the worst problem Illinois faces, they don’t seem to get much attention outside of those few who pay close attention to dollars and sense.
That’s good for the politicians because it allows them to continue with business as usual in the hope the state will continue to muddle through. But denying reality doesn’t work forever. There’s a reckoning ahead — not before the November election, of course, but it’s coming, and everyone is on notice.