Illinois General Assembly exempts itself from spending cuts, appropriations process
September 18, 2014

Illinois General Assembly exempts itself from spending cuts, appropriations process

In the throes of Illinois’ fiscal crisis, nearly every nook and cranny of the Illinois state budget should be fair game for review and reduction. But some state lawmakers don’t seem to think so, especially when it comes to their money. In the waning hours of the final day of this year’s spring session, state...

In the throes of Illinois’ fiscal crisis, nearly every nook and cranny of the Illinois state budget should be fair game for review and reduction. But some state lawmakers don’t seem to think so, especially when it comes to their money.

In the waning hours of the final day of this year’s spring session, state politicians chose to exempt their own budget from the scrutiny of the annual appropriations process, the first line of defense against irresponsible spending.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton joined forces to introduce and enact a law prohibiting reductions from year to year in the appropriations made available in the annual state budget for legislators’ salaries and legislative operating expenses. Plus, their new law permits the payment of these salaries and expenses even if there is no annual appropriation for that purpose.

No other office or agency of state government is given such a free pass on budgetary oversight.

Illinois law generally permits the expenditure of public funds only when spending is authorized by annual appropriations. Authorize, then spend – this is the basic principle of government accounting. The risk of financial wrongdoing rises when the appropriations process is sidestepped.

The authority to spend without an annual appropriation (called a “continuing appropriation”) is traditionally strictly limited. Its primary use is to ensure holders of long-term state debt that the state will continue to pay debt service when due until the debt is fully paid, which can take 20 years or more. To equate the payment of current expenses for the General Assembly to these long-term obligations of the state is absurd.

To authorize a continuing appropriation for this purpose sets a terrible precedent. And, in a time of significant budgetary crises, it runs counter to responsible budgeting.

The governor’s role in the annual budgeting process is one of the few checks and balances offsetting the General Assembly’s authority to set its own budget at whatever level it pleases. This new law all but eliminates the governor’s role in recommending, setting, approving or rejecting the budget of the legislature.

So how did this measure become law?

Senate Bill 274 had wended its way through the legislative process as a non-descript, do-nothing bill (known as a “shell bill”) until the final day of session, when it suddenly became a vehicle for several amendments for legislative leaders. It was enacted by the General Assembly as Public Act 98-682.

But why did Gov. Pat Quinn sign it? The answer is fairly simple.

Another key amendment attached to the same bill provided urgently needed authority for state officials to transfer money among state funds to address the state’s cash-flow problems. Quinn could not approve this crucial measure without approving the nefarious one as well.

What prompted legislators to pursue this “no cuts allowed, no appropriations needed” measure for their own budget in the first place was an ongoing political and budgetary dispute between legislative leaders and Quinn. Forcing the governor to approve the measure allowed legislative leaders to take the upper hand.

This is just another example of “politics as usual” in Illinois. A legislative proposal, never offered for public review, which violates the principles of responsible budgeting, tests the limits of constitutionality and provides special treatment for the body acting on it, is introduced and enacted not in the service of the public, but rather in the service of power politics. To the citizens of Illinois, it sends the unfortunate message that playing politics takes priority over public service.

The General Assembly should not be the beneficiary of a “no cuts allowed, no appropriations needed” spending policy. They know better. It is poor public policy, and it should be removed from the law before it becomes too deeply rooted.

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