Illinois lawmakers vote on bills without fully understanding how the legislation will affect the state’s finances. That goes a long way toward explaining the state’s more than $12.5 billion in backlogged bills, $130 billion in unfunded state pension liabilities, and $8 billion in deficit spending.
From March 2015 to January 2017, the 99th General Assembly passed 938 bills that were ultimately signed into law; however, only 2.9 percent of the bills contained fiscal notes. A fiscal note essentially acts as a price tag for a bill and contains details about how much the state will pay for a particular law its legislature passes.
Though problematic, this lack of fiscal notes is nothing new for Illinois.
Between 2011 and 2012, less than 3 percent of the 1,173 bills passed by the 97th General Assembly and enacted into law contained fiscal notes. The trend continued into the 98th General Assembly, and in 2013, only 3.4 percent of the bills passed in that year contained fiscal notes.
While not every bill passed relates to fiscal matters, many bills, even those of seemingly little consequence, can have an effect on the state budget. Other laws, which may contain notes pertaining to pensions, land conveyance appraisal and other issues, don’t always have fiscal notes, even though they have a direct or indirect impact on the state’s finances. Illinois’ financial problems are legion, and yet only 27 of the 938 bills passed in the 99th General Assembly have fiscal notes.
The solution is simple: Require every bill to have a fiscal note.
The idea is not uncommon. At least 10 states require every bill to have a fiscal note, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But in Illinois, the state’s current fiscal notes law only requires fiscal notes on bills that pertain directly to state revenues or debt impact bills. Despite this requirement, many pieces of legislation that have financial implications do not include fiscal notes.
One example is recent legislation relating to Illinois’ tax credit program, which often benefits large corporations. Senate Bill 513, which would later go on to become Public Act 99-0925, extended the Economic Development for a Growing Economy tax credit program through April 30, 2017, potentially costing taxpayers millions. Yet, the bill did not contain a fiscal note when it was introduced because it did not fall under the narrow criteria set forth by the current fiscal notes requirements. House Bill 2685, now Public Act 99-0238, became law Aug. 3, 2015, and allows the Regional Transportation Authority to borrow over $100 million through bond sales – yet there was no fiscal note. Without real reform, politicians will continue to pass bills that do not tell their true impact on the state’s finances.
Some legislators have noticed this problem and have made attempts at fiscal note reform in the past.
In 2011 state Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, introduced Senate Bill 31. Known as the Fiscal Note Act, the bill proposed widening the fiscal notes rules; if passed, the measure would’ve forced lawmakers to include fiscal notes with more bills. The bill gained considerable bipartisan support, with more than one-third of the Senate signing on as co-sponsors. Unfortunately, SB 31 ultimately did not receive a floor vote and died in the Senate.
Government should be as transparent as possible, especially when spending taxpayer dollars. Not including fiscal notes with bills that could cost taxpayers millions muddies the waters surrounding state spending. The lack of fiscal notes for costly legislation removes government accountability, and accountability is something Illinois desperately needs.
Lawmakers should reconsider fiscal note reform. It would be a step in the right direction and would not only make government more transparent and legislation less opaque to taxpayers, but it would also be a better way to keep track of spending. With more than $12.5 billion in backlogged bills, $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and $8 billion in deficit spending, a little more bookkeeping couldn’t hurt. The state would be better off for it.