At budget time, Illinois ignores its own constitution

July 12, 2015
By Diana Rickert

This article was originally featured in Pantagraph on July 12, 2015. 

Illinois has never been a state where its leaders follow the rules. While the state is the butt of jokes about its multiple imprisoned politicians, the fact is those in power don’t follow some of the basic tenets of the state constitution.

Lost in the battle over the budget and what Gov. Bruce Rauner says about House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, and vice versa, is the fact the Illinois Constitution calls for the state budget to balanced.

The wording is clear. The constitution states, “Proposed expenditures shall not exceed funds estimated to be available for the fiscal year as shown in the budget.”

However, the concept of a balanced budget in Illinois is a joke, and a very bad joke at that. The punch line is a massive budget deficit, billions of dollars of debt and fairly wide acknowledgment that Illinois is not only in the worst financial shape of all 50 states, it also is the worst-run state in the union.

The General Assembly has not passed a balanced budget since 2001. Every year, some type of trick is used to give the illusion the budget appears balanced, but it really isn’t.

Standard operating procedure is to pass a budget stuffed full of goodies to send to the governor. The idea is legislators can be heroes by getting funding for their pet projects and if the mean, old governor vetoes the pet project, it’s his fault.

The problem is we have had weak-willed governors who don’t want to make anyone unhappy, so any cuts made to the unbalanced budget are not enough to produce a truly balanced plan. So, the debt mounts and the fiscal hole gets deeper.

So, here we are. Rauner vetoed most of the budget sent to him by the Democratic-controlled legislature, saying it was unconstitutionally out of balance by more than $3 billion. Rather than simply raise taxes to fill the gap, Rauner wants changes to workers’ compensation laws and civil lawsuits favored by the business community. He also wants a property tax freeze, term limits and a new way of drawing the state’s political maps.

Madigan has essentially said the budget should have been signed, with the two sides working to close the gap later. Even removing politics from this discussion, there is not a balanced budget in play anywhere.

The Illinois Policy Institute has brought up an interesting point about the General Assembly’s regard for the constitution. Diana Rickert, vice president of communications, said, “A few months ago, lawmakers threw up their hands and said pension reform is dead because the constitution says they can’t change benefits. But now many of the same guys turn around and send the governor an unbalanced budget, ignoring this constitutional requirement.”

Almost every state has public budget hearings, negotiations over spending and compromises made to reach a point where spending equals available revenue. Sadly, that’s not the case in Illinois, where bloated budgets are approved and everyone just … leaves.

This year, with Rauner in office, that dynamic has changed. The best scenario is for everyone to gather in a room, make difficult choices, and present Illinoisans something they haven’t seen in more than a decade: a balanced budget.