Which of the following headlines is least likely: “Man bites dog,” “Bears win Super Bowl” or “State of Illinois in good fiscal shape”?
For anyone who pays attention, a headline claiming Illinois is doing well fiscally would easily be the toughest to swallow.
Yet the reality is that the state’s General Fund is in the healthiest financial condition it’s been for decades. Consider that when Gov. J.B. Pritzker came into office, he inherited an $8 billion backlog of unpaid bills from Bruce Rauner’s administration. Which isn’t small potatoes. Back then, it meant roughly 30 percent of all General Fund expenditures for the year were in fact deficit spending. Unfortunately, that was also nothing new, as Illinois had failed to produce anything close to a balanced budget in its General Fund for well over two decades.
That’s no bueno, because about 95 percent of all General Fund spending on services goes to the four core areas of education, health care, human services and public safety. The problem is, due to various structural fiscal shortcomings, those four core services have been cut for decades. So much so that by the end of FY 2023, Illinois will be spending 16 percent less on education, health care, human services and public safety in real, inflation-adjusted dollars than at the end of FY 2000.
To be clear, every community in Illinois needs the state to have the fiscal capacity to fund those services, or bad things happen. And by bad things, I mean children don’t get an adequate education, low-income high school grads don’t get the financial support they require to afford college and earn a degree that makes them viable in the modern economy, and vulnerable people like homebound seniors, individuals with developmental disabilities, victims of domestic violence, and poor, single working parents don’t receive the support needed to make it through the day, or have any hope for a decent quality of life.
So it’s truly newsworthy that the General Fund budget Pritzker just proposed for FY 2024 is projected to have an accumulated deficit of just $1.15 billion at its year-end. If that happens, it will be the smallest General Fund deficit, in nominal, non-inflation-adjusted dollars, in 25 years — or since before George Ryan was governor in 2000. Make no mistake, this somewhat remarkable turn of events is due in large part to the Pritzker administration’s responsible stewardship of the state’s finances. Yes, over the past few years, Illinois has received significant pandemic-related financial support from the feds. The state also realized around $4.9 billion in unexpected revenue growth last fiscal year.
Still, the Pritzker administration didn’t cave into political pressure to use either the one-time federal aid or unexpected, one-time bump in revenue to fund a Christmas tree full of goodies. Instead, Pritzker’s administration leveraged this fiscal largesse to help pay down the state’s bill backlog, pre-pay $700 million in pension debt, deposit over $4 billion into the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, and invest close to $2 billion in Illinois’ Rainy Day Fund, so that it now sits at a historically high level — after being reduced to zero by Rauner.
None of those actions were particularly sexy — but all of them are fiscally responsible. Better yet, they helped the state move from fiscal crisis to fiscal health. They even allowed the governor to propose increasing year-to-year investments in each of the four, core service areas that have suffered real cuts for far too long.
However, many of the structural fiscal flaws that created years of deficits remain in place. Which means Illinois decision-makers have the rare opportunity to thoughtfully consider reforming the state’s fiscal system, with an eye toward building the capacity needed to sustain investments in core services over the long haul, rather than just dig out of the crisis du jour. Bottom line: the Pritzker administration should be commended for its responsible stewardship, but there’s still work to do.
Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank, and the Arthur Rubloff Professor of Public Policy at Roosevelt University.
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February 26, 2023 at 10:23AM