Fighting over fairy tales
By Rich Miller
Right off the bat, I should say that I think the so-called “stopgap budget” signed into law on June 30 was a good idea. Not fiscally, but because people who rely on state government desperately needed a break from the all-out legislative war between two ideologically entrenched parties.
Gov. Bruce Rauner absolutely refused to budge on negotiating a fully funded state spending plan until the Democrats agreed to some of his anti-union/pro-business agenda. Democrats wouldn’t move off their support for unions. So after more than 12 solid months of stalemate, the two camps finally agreed to a six-month budget for everything but elementary and secondary education funding, which got a full year’s worth of cash.
And even though social services providers and universities only got about half their previous levels of funding going back the last 12 months and forward through December, the stopgap budget money is probably enough to keep both systems from totally collapsing.
It was a reprieve, of sorts—just enough money to keep most of the “budget hostages” alive while the two warring parties retreated back to their corners to fight the upcoming fall campaign.
The stopgap also prevented state government from grinding to a complete halt. Prisons, for instance, couldn’t pay suppliers for everything from water to electricity to food because they haven’t had any official appropriations since the previous June. Without a court order, agencies can’t spend money if they don’t have a legislative appropriation signed by the governor.
Fiscally, however, the stopgap is a monster.
Comptroller Leslie Munger, who pays the state’s bills, told reporters last week that come late December the state will still be paying off invoices from June and it’ll have a total bill payment backlog of $10 billion.
The very same day, the respected and bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability projected the stopgap deal has an $8 billion deficit.
You may recall that House Speaker Michael Madigan jammed his own spending plan through his chamber in late May, but several rank-and-file Senate Democrats subsequently revolted and stopped that bill dead in its tracks.
Ever since then, Rauner has been busily traveling the state taking credit for killing Madigan’s bill, always claiming it was disastrously out of balance by about $7 billion.
I Googled “Rauner Democrats $7 billion” and came up with 36,200 results. He really burned that message in, and for good reason. His political operation claims its polling shows a vote for that $7 billion deficit is darned near political death.
But . . . wait. Isn’t an almost $8 billion deficit in a budget he signed larger than a $7 billion deficit in a bill he claimed to stop?
Why, yes, it is.
But don’t tell that to the governor.
“We could be way, way worse off if the supermajority’s budget bill had passed,” Rauner said, speaking of Madigan’s proposal. “We’d be spending at an even higher level than we are today.”
Never mind, because it probably won’t matter anyway when it comes to the campaign.
The Republicans are all about pinning that $7 billion deficit tag on the House Democrats. And the House Democrats are gearing up to whack Republicans for proposing a stopgap budget plan in late May that provided far less funding for K-12, higher education, social services and health care than was eventually approved by both chambers in late June.
Yep, you read that right. Unless somebody changes their mind, we’re about to witness a big, nasty campaign fight over two bills that never became law. Heck, the Republican stopgap proposal never even got a committee hearing, let alone a vote.
The Republicans will slam the Democrats for attempting to force a budget through that would’ve created such a huge deficit that the personal income tax rate would’ve risen to “more than 5.5 percent,” as a Rauner administration memo claimed last week (issued, by the way, the same day the $8 billion deficit projection was released). The tax rate is now 3.75 percent, after partially rolling back in January of last year from a high of 5 percent.
And the Democrats will slam the Republicans for trying to “slash” every politically popular spending program under the sun.
Why won’t the two sides blast each other for putting us in the hole by $8 billion? Because they actually passed that bill and Rauner signed it into law. Whacking each other for a bill that passed with huge bipartisan majorities just wouldn’t be cricket.
And so we’ll get fairy tales.