Illinois’ fiscal challenges continue to be a top priority in Springfield. Understandably, I get a lot of questions about our budget and our ability to pay vendors and service providers. In light of these questions, and in light of both the importance and severity of the issue, I thought I’d take the opportunity to outline some of the key aspects of the budget, how we got here, and where we might end up. My goal is to provide some context within which we can better evaluate our options.
Let’s rewind, then, to early 2011 when I began my time in the State House. The state was clearly in crisis, paying vendors extremely late. The previous General Assembly had attempted to the pension issue by passing legislation creating a new “tier” of employees, who would be offered a much less generous benefit package than employees already working for the state. Then, mere hours before I was sworn in, the previous General Assembly voted to increase our flat income tax rate temporarily from 3% to 5%.
But on the day of inauguration, our problems were nowhere close to solved. For months, my office received call after call from families in crisis. Some were losing their homes, others were unable to feed their children. Social service agencies were closing and people were desperate to find help.
The next General Assembly took additional steps to fill the gap. We made painful cuts and changes to Medicaid and increased revenue brought in by the cigarette tax. We made cuts almost across the board that were difficult but necessary. And between those cuts and the new revenue, we slowly began working our way out of a very deep fiscal hole.
The problem is that for some time, now, we’ve been backsliding. Revenue dropped starting this January, the bill backlog has been mounting, and the situation has started to look more like it did 3 or 4 years ago. The Supreme Court’s decision last Friday to overturn changes made to the pension systems has only drawn our budget challenges into sharper relief.
If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it should be that when faced with such difficulties, it’s essential to find long-term structural solutions, and to stick to them. Nothing is gained by making knee-jerk cuts that will harm the most vulnerable among us, put more families in crisis, and leave us with the same structural problems we had before. Instead, we need to enact changes to our system that create a fair tax code and a truly balanced budget.
The next several weeks of our legislative session leading up to theMay 31 deadline to pass a budget will give us the opportunity to make such changes. They will also give us the opportunity to kick the can down the road, or to pretend to balance the budget on the backs of the needy.
You have my commitment that I’ll be advocating hard for fairness and sustainability. I look forward to staying in touch as we hopefully move in that direction, and as always, I appreciate your support and input.