Our View: Happy holidays not in store for Illinois as budget impasse looms

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How nice would it be to head into the holidays with visions of a state budget agreement dancing in our heads?

Instead, many Illinois residents are bracing themselves for a more Grinch-like experience. A stopgap budget gave some relief the past six months by providing funding to keep operations running. But the countdown is on: After today there are just 13 days until 2016 flips to 2017, and Illinois will revert from the Land of Lincoln to Land of No Budget.

And that matters because …

13. The state’s national reputation in every facet imaginable is abysmal. Illinois is pointed to as a cautionary tale as to how not to do pretty much anything in government.

The state’s inaction on budgetary matters has …

12. Threatened Illinois’ ability to receive matching funds. U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley noted last week that he fears Illinois could miss out on federal infrastructure money under the incoming president if the state can’t provide matching funds, and he’s worried the ongoing budget issues will make that difficult.

That’s small potatoes when you consider that …

11. The state’s unfunded pension liability continues to worsen. It’s now at nearly $130 billion, which makes it the third-worst-funded pension system in the country.

The pension liability has been cited as one reason why …

10. Illinois’ credit rating has been downgraded. In June Moody’s Investors Service dropped the state’s general obligation rating to two ratings above junk status, affecting about $26 billion of debt. The agency blamed the action on the “continuing budget imbalance due to political gridlock.” A bad bond rating means taxpayers have to cough up more in interest whenever money is borrowed.

It’s not like Illinois has money to spare since …

9. The state is spending more than it’s taking in. Illinois does not generate enough revenue to cover its expenses, much less pay down its backlog of bills for services already rendered.

Granted, even if there were money … 

8. Bills aren’t being paid the way they should be. Absent a budget, about 90 percent of state spending is paid out through court orders, consent decrees and continuing appropriations. So in some cases a judge — instead of elected officials — decided how your tax money was spent.

But even if lawmakers are the ones deciding …

7. The bill backlog is more than $10 billion. That’s money owed to, among others, social service agencies and businesses that provide goods and services to the state. It’s projected to hit 13.5 billion by the end of the fiscal year.

And because of this backlog …

6. Illinois is wasting money on late fees. As of March, Illinois had spent more than $900 million during the past six years on late-payment penalties due to the state’s inability to pay its bills on time.

Those million could have been spent on providing government services. But instead …

5. Many social service agencies and vendors have had to lay off employees, reduce the number of clients they see or, in extreme cases, close their doors. They do this while trying their best to provide services to the state’s most vulnerable residents, and hope that someday the state will make good on what it owes them. Vendors also have had to lay off workers, borrow and try to hold on while being stiffed by the state.

There’s another group hoping the state will make good on a promise …

4. The neediest students seeking higher education and better job opportunities are again in limbo. Funding for the Monetary Assistance Program is uncertain. The stopgap budget included money to pay off last year’s MAP grants, but no money for this year.

Some universities and colleges have covered the costs of the grants, but many cannot do so anymore. And that is because …

3. The state’s higher education system is in an ongoing crisis. Higher education received almost no state funding during the year without a budget. Universities struggled to meet payroll; some schools laid off hundreds. And the uncertainty likely led to enrollment decreases this fall at five of the public universities in Illinois.

The lack of investment in higher education … 

2. Contributes to the already bad business climate in Illinois. A well-educated workforce is key to a thriving economy. Businesses want to hire the best, and Illinois won’t be an option if the brightest are leaving. A recent survey by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University found that 48 percent of the state’s residents would rather live elsewhere. What business will want to come here when its potential workforce wants to move out?

Add in the need for reforms in areas like workers compensation and the high property tax rates, and the budget ambiguity makes it near impossible to attract people and businesses.

And all of this is due to …

1. Our elected officials are failing to do the job we pay them to do. The governor is constitutionally required to introduce a budget, and state legislators need to approve a spending plan to basic state services can be provided. 

The longer they stall on crafting a budget, and figuring out a way to pay down its bill backlog, the deeper the pain that will be inflicted by Illinois residents.

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Our View: Happy holidays not in store for Illinois as budget impasse looms

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