Madigan spending plan shows need for real balanced-budget rules

Madigan spending plan shows need for real balanced-budget rules

Illinois' budgeting process is not fair to the people of Illinois.

Imagine spending more than you make.

Imagine spending more than you make for an entire year.

Imagine spending more than you make for 15 years in a row.

What would happen? Well, just look at the state of the state. Illinois lawmakers have failed to pass a single balanced budget since 2001. Panic reigns at the Statehouse as the Land of Lincoln drowns in debt, unable to pay its bills. Residents remain overtaxed and underserved.

On May 25, Democrats in the Illinois House of Representatives introduced and passed a state budget that’s out of balance by nearly $7 billion, according to the Illinois Office of Management and Budget’s analysis. They want to take $32 billion from residents, and spend $39 billion. The 500-page budget was introduced and passed in a single evening.

Clearly, something is wrong here. No state can pass fake budgets for more than a decade and expect things to turn out OK.

The Illinois General Assembly’s spending in any fiscal year “shall not exceed the funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year, ” according to the Illinois Constitution.

So why isn’t anyone following the rules?

The answer is in plain sight. Illinois’ balanced-budget requirement is toothless. Since the requirement doesn’t explicitly prohibit borrowing and budgeting tricks, Illinois lawmakers have used both with abandon.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn borrowed $3.5 billion to fund the state’s pension systems to create the appearance of a balanced budget for fiscal year 2010. He did the same thing the next fiscal year, borrowing another $3.7 billion. In May 2011, lawmakers used an accounting gimmick to push more than $1 billion in unpaid bills to the next fiscal year.

As written, the state’s balanced-budget requirement all but encourages lawmakers to ignore unpaid bills, incur huge deficits and stick future generations with the tab.

Taxpayers end up shouldering massive tax hikes not to fund crucial services, but to pay for the irresponsible behavior of politicians.

Take the 2011 income-tax hike. It took nearly $32 billion in extra revenue from Illinoisans. That’s more than the state spends on education, health care, human services and public safety combined in a full fiscal year.

But that money didn’t go to gleaming classrooms, smoother roads or better public safety. Instead, about one-third of the money went to pay unpaid bills and pension debt. Lawmakers dumped the rest into the state’s pension systems, which have accountability problems all their own.

This process is not fair to the people of Illinois. They expect lawmakers to spend within their means, just as they do in their own households.

The solution to this problem is simple. Illinois must strengthen its balanced-budget requirement. A rule that mandates responsible stewardship would go a long way toward putting Illinois on a sane and sustainable path.

The research on this topic is unsurprisingly clear. States with rigorous balanced budget requirements are more likely to balance their budgets, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 47 contains many necessary protections for Illinois taxpayers. It not only requires that spending can’t exceed revenue, but also bans the use of debt, refinancing and fund sweeps to calculate that revenue.

In short, the proposed constitutional amendment prohibits gimmicks that have plagued the state for far too long. But it’s also as good as dead in House Speaker Mike Madigan’s Rules Committee.

If a constitutional amendment is too much for lawmakers to handle, a proposal from Gov. Bruce Rauner could at least give the state a chance to pass a responsible budget this year.

The governor proposed passing the Unbalanced Budget Response Act, which would temporarily give him the ability to shift funds and reduce spending to balance the state’s budget. Certain funds such as those devoted to schools, early childhood education and debt service would remain untouched.

Even Rauner doesn’t think that solution is ideal, but it’s a far better fix than continuing to indulge fantasyland spending.

Strict rules governing basic responsibilities of state lawmakers shouldn’t be necessary. But the extreme recklessness of the last 15 years shows Illinois politicians need more than a slap on the wrist.

They need handcuffs.

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