5/25/2006 2:58:00 PM Guest Column The new state budget: perception won't pay the bills
By Sen. DALE RIGHTER For the Daily News
Now that the 2006 spring legislative session has concluded, lawmakers are back home in their districts visiting with constituents, discussing what occurred over the last four months in Springfield, and soliciting their feedback.
During this process, we have both been asked why we voted against the budget. After all, Gov. Blagojevich and the Democrat leaders who fashioned the fiscal year 2007 spending plan tell us it is balanced and spends a great deal of taxpayer money in areas voters care about - education, health care, and other areas.
This is a fair question to ask, and one that deserves an answer characterized not by sound bites or election year platitudes, but clear and undisputable facts.
Let me begin by clarifying that the budget is not in fact balanced, at least not as the word 'balanced' is understood by most. According to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, Illinois government will receive $900 million more in tax revenue for the next fiscal year than it did this year. But the new budget will spend $1.4 billion more - a $500 million deficit right from the start. Additionally, the 'balance' in this budget leaves almost $2 billion in Medicaid bills unpaid.
Also, moer than $1 billion in spending for this budget is, in a very real sense, being borrowed from the public's pension funds. Eleven years ago the General Assembly passed, and then Governor Edgar signed, a 50-year payment plan to bring these pension funds to a fully funded level. That payment plan was on track until last May, when Blagojevich and his party in the legislature enacted a massive two-year, $2.3 billion diversion of those scheduled payments. Instead of being deposited into the pension funds and earning interest, that money is now being used to fuel new spending and new programs. And while that helps proponents paint a rosy picture for the present, it comes at a stunning cost for the future - Illinois taxpayers will pay $30 to $40 billion more into the pension funds over the next four decades.
Finally, this budget betrays a budgetary ideal which our constituents and most Illinoisans believe policymakers should adhere to - government should first fully pay for those obligations or programs it has created, and only then, consider new spending initiatives. Despite $1.4 billion in increased spending, this budget imposes cuts for long-time and important obligations.
Nor is this budget equitable to all area's of the state. There are plenty of examples of taxpayer dollars in the budget being dumped into the Chicagoland area. For example, $30,000 was included for Chicago State University in order to create an exhibit honoring members of the legislature who attended school there.
Further, on the subject of higher education, downstate universities such as Eastern and the University of Illinois are seeing increases of less that 2 percent. But Chicago State's funding is going up by three times that: 6.5 percent. In fact we agree that this budget was best summed up by a Chicago area Democratic Senator who told the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, "it's a good day for the people of the Southwest Side of Chicago, Cicero and Berwyn."
These frivolous spending projects characterize what this budget is really about: perception. It is intended by those who crafted it and supported it to create a perception - the perception that Illinois is free from fiscal worries, and that record-high levels in our long-term debt, unfunded liability in our pension funds, and backlog of unpaid bills aren't really cause for concern.
We don't deny that sometimes symbols and positive perceptions have value. But budgets need to be more than instruments merely designed to make people believe something in an election year. Budgets should reflect our priorities, such as responsible investment in principal areas like education, health care, transportation and economic development, and they should do so in a manner that doesn't leave an outrageously high mountain of debt for the next generation to pay off, even if it means sacrificing a few fuzzy headlines and campaign speeches along the way.
It is true that some are pleased with the fiscal year 2007 budget; after all, it would be difficult to spend $1.4 billion more than the previous year and not make at least a few people happy. However, it rests on the premise that addressing our serious and long-term problems can be indefinitely postponed. But it can't, and that's a reality that even election-year perceptions and symbols will not overcome.