Our Opinion: Required reading for Quinn, Brady

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes has become one of our favorite writers over the last 12 years.

As three governors and legislators have disregarded his warnings about the state’s fiscal condition, his quarterly reports have become ever more fascinating reading to those of us who follow state government. The latest edition of “Illinois State Comptroller’s Quarterly,” issued last week, is no exception.

Like the best of authors, Hynes spreads tantalizing details in his narrative, leading the reader to the big crescendo at the end:

“The structural imbalance in the current budget, combined with higher debt service costs and the loss of federal stimulus revenues, creates the very real possibility that the Governor and General Assembly will face a working deficit of $15 billion or more when the fiscal year 2012 budget is crafted early next year.”

Just as we were becoming accustomed to our $13 billion deficit, along comes Hynes to up the ante.

The state’s bill backlog extends back to March, and the changing of the fiscal calendar means little to Illinois, Hynes reports.

“With $4.7 billion in fiscal year 2010 payables on June 30 to start the new fiscal year and $1.7 billion in additional fiscal year 2010 payments presented during the lapse period, over $6.4 billion in fiscal year 2011 revenues will be used to pay last year’s bills.”

We bring this up not to chortle over the state’s miserable financial situation. Rather, we are struck by the contrast between the details in this report and the vagaries we continue to hear from both major party candidates for governor.

Republican challenger Bill Brady vows to cut “a dime from every dollar” in the state budget. Gov. Pat Quinn wants an income tax increase and has cut a deal with AFSCME that might save up to $100 million.

The key word in the first excerpt above is “structural.” So far, neither Brady nor Quinn has offered a plan for fundamental change in the state’s budget that will make it systemically sound going forward.

We did hear one such plan last week. State Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Pontiac, who is running for state treasurer, said everything the state has done thus far to address its money problems amounted to baby steps.

“The big money savings that we have to address are two areas. One is conversion of Medicaid ... into more of a managed-care system and the other area is in regard to our public pensions,” Rutherford told The State Journal-Register editorial board. “This is not a popular thing to talk about ... but if you don’t be an adult about it and address it properly we’re going to never fix the budget problem in this state. Keeping a defined benefit program is not a sustainable pension system.

“You add more revenue to this treasury, you will not fix the problem as long as those two gaping holes are in the bottom, having the money flow out.”

Unfortunately, the governor, not the state treasurer, sets budget policy. We are not endorsing Rutherford’s suggestions, but we give him credit for going on record with them. We hope whoever becomes our next governor has read Hynes’ latest assessment. If we reach that $15 billion mark, Hynes writes, things will get even more bleak:

“The ability of the state to maintain any reasonable level of education and social service funding — and just as importantly, to pay for those services on a timely basis — will be severely jeopardized.”