The elephants in Gov. Quinn's room

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Whew! Gov. Pat Quinn's new Illinois budget came along in the nick of time, just hours after the state's fiscal year began July 1 and a day before Quinn and the other state politicians headed out for a long weekend of parade appearances.

It includes $1.4 billion in cuts that will be difficult, painful and disproportionately felt by those who need help most. But at least it gets us on the path toward solvency and lets state-funded social agencies, schools, universities, medical providers and many others know how much they get to spend this year.


Well, of course not. This is Illinois, which the New York Times over the weekend dubbed "Greece by Lake Michigan."

In announcing the budget, Quinn tiptoed around so many elephants in the room, there must be a few sitting on his lap.

Elephant No. 1: Quinn's $1.4 billion in cuts, made after House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton dumped the financial mess in his direction, pale next to a $3.7 billion gap the budget completely fails to address. That's the state's one-year obligation toward pensions for state employees. Quinn asked the legislature to borrow once again to make the payment. The legislature said no. Watch for more, much deeper cuts if Quinn's budget gambit doesn't change legislators' minds.

Elephant No. 2: The fact that Illinois at least is starting the budget year with a budget, for a change, is no solace for those who rely on state funding. That's because Illinois still owes them more than $5 billion from last year. While Quinn's budget keeps general state aid for schools at last year's levels, schools aren't going to start rehiring or reinstating programs anytime soon. "Until they actually send the check, I think the school districts are wary," says Ben Schwarm, lobbyist for the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Elephant No. 3: Even with Quinn's cuts (and not counting the pension debt and last year's unpaid bills), there's still a $6 billion gap between the state's revenues and what Quinn plans to spend - a great big brushoff of the state Constitution's requirement for a balanced budget.
Quinn and fellow Democrats Madigan and Cullerton no doubt hope to cover some of that deficit with a tax increase just as soon as the November statewide elections get out of the way.

That strategy of delay and denial is a slap in the face. Illinois, threatening to unseat California as chief financial quagmire, cannot wait any longer for an honest and courageous budget rescue plan.

Constituents deserve to hear real numbers now, and should demand forthright answers.

State agencies and state-funded service providers need to know how much cash they really can count on, and they need to know now. Without that, Illinois' neediest people - and all of us - are for another year hostages of Springfield's political machinations.