By Greg Bishop
Illinois News Network
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker released a report Friday that blames predecessor Bruce Rauner for the state’s sorry financial condition and promises more state spending on schools, infrastructure and higher education.
Two reports issued by two different governors in the past month paint different pictures of what’s caused Illinois state government’s financial mess.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration blames predecessor Bruce Rauner in a new report released a month after Rauner issued his final report. Pritzker’s administration said Rauner’s four years in office resulted in a projected $3.2 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year. The budget was passed last May with overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers.
Prtizker’s report, written by former Democratic state comptroller and new Deputy Governor Dan Hynes, is titled “Digging Out: The Rauner Wreckage Report.” It said the past four years under Rauner showed that “failure and ideological warfare in Illinois state government create a mess that will take years to put behind us.”
“Four years of failing to face these challenges only compounded the financial implications to the state and taxpayers today,” Pritzker’s report said.
Rauner’s Republican administration butted heads regularly with the Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature. His attempts to reduce pension benefits, curtail spending, cut regulations and refusal to sign unbalanced budgets led to a 30-month budget impasse with only stopgap funding measures.
In the first fiscal year of Rauner’s term, both chambers passed a budget that was billions out of balance. After Rauner vetoed that budget, there wasn’t an attempt to override the veto. The following year, only the Senate passed a budget. The House didn’t follow suit. It wasn’t until the Independence Day holiday in 2017 that several Republicans joined Democrats to pass a $5 billion income tax increase and budget over Rauner’s veto.
During the impasse, Illinois’ bills from court-ordered spending continued to mount. Rauner had said lawmakers refused to address the court-ordered spending through legislation, causing the bills to compound further. The backlog reached more than $16 billion at one point and the state ended up borrowing billions of dollars to pay that down. Despite that, spending levels continued. The state’s existing backlog of unpaid bills is nearly $8 billion.
Pritzker’s report said the state incurred more than $1 billion in interest penalties for paying bills late during Rauner’s administration. It also detailed how the impasse hurt social service providers and declining enrollment at the state’s public colleges and universities, among other issues.
Before leaving office last month, Rauner put out a constitutionally required report to the General Assembly. Rauner’s report said lawmakers and the Pritzker administration have to get control of government spending and cut regulations to allow the economy to grow faster than the state government.
“Government spending continues to grow faster than our economy, forcing persistent deficits, tax increases, and out-migration of jobs and families,” Rauner’s report said. “Unless you implement major structural reforms that help our economy grow faster than government, our children face a bleak future of ever higher taxes and lost opportunity.”
“If Illinois’ economy had been growing at just the national average over the last twenty years, we would have been running budget surpluses and have no unpaid bills, with only a 3 percent income tax rate,” Rauner’s report said.
The Republican’s report recommended lawmakers “increase funding for education and human services, not through tax increases, but through savings in the cost of government and through stronger economic growth unleashed by cuts in taxes and regulations.”
“To end our state’s debilitating pattern of deficit spending and tax increases, we insisted on balanced budgets, as required in our state constitution, and on policies to promote stronger economic growth,” Rauner said. “We refused to sign deficit budgets or tax increases without major structural reforms.”
Pritzker is set to deliver his first budget address Feb. 20. Despite projecting a $3.2 billion – 16 percent higher than Rauner projected in November – Pritzker has promised to deliver a balanced budget. He hasn’t said if that budget will include spending cuts or tax increases. At the same time, public universities, K-12 schools, state employee unions and social service providers are all asking for additional funding.
Pritzker’s report said Illinois must also invest infrastructure.
“Four years of failing to face these challenges only compounded the financial implications to the state and taxpayers today,” Pritzker’s report concluded. “For anyone who reviews the State’s finances, these years were such an anomaly that they will forever have an asterisk beside them. While a generation of future Illinoisans will be forced to deal with the ramifications of Gov. Rauner’s fiscal wreckage, the new administration will use its first budget to light a multi-year path forward to fiscal stability and a new prosperity for Illinois.”
Michael Lucci, who served as deputy chief of staff for policy under Rauner, said Pritzker and his team need to address the state’s long-term debt crisis.
“Illinois and its constituent municipalities are in a long-term debt crisis. The debt crisis is the overarching problem eating into government operations and a primary factor hurting Illinois’ quality of life. Gov. Quinn inherited it, Gov. Rauner inherited it, and now Gov. Pritzker has inherited it,” Lucci wrote in a statement. “It is normal for a new governor to blame the previous governor for everything that is wrong with the state. Now it is time to acknowledge the state’s debt crisis, its outlier population loss, and propose long-term solutions. It is also time to prepare a financial contingency plan in the case that we hit a national recession, which is likely to occur during Gov. Pritzker’s tenure.”
Pritzker has been pushing for new revenue through a progressive tax, but even if voters were to approve such a change the money wouldn’t be available until fiscal year 2022. The Democratic governor has also been pushing for expanding gambling and legalizing marijuana to generate more revenue, but that money isn’t expected for the start of the next fiscal year this summer.