I spent Thursday afternoon looking at some numbers and discovered some good news that you probably don’t know.
For the first seven months of the fiscal year (through the end of January), Illinois tax revenues grew by about a billion dollars. That’s almost a 7 percent growth rate, according to a nonpartisan legislative commission.
But man, is there ever a lot of bad news.
You knew there’d be bad news. This is Illinois, after all.
All of that extra money is barely enough to cover the state’s increased pension payment this year. That pension payment is going up another billion dollars next year, too.
Not to mention that state employee health insurance reimbursements are running anywhere from a year to 500 days late. Yes, you read that right. Five hundred days late.
The state is releasing $600 million or so that had been set aside for health insurance costs, but that cash won’t even cover costs for the rest the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, let alone touch the bill backlog.
Meanwhile, unemployment remains stubbornly high. Illinois didn’t even recover all the jobs lost during the 2001 recession before the last one began.
I was listening to Gov. Pat Quinn’s State of the State address this past Wednesday with the hope that he had come up with some ideas to drag Illinois out of its morass.
No such luck.
Then again, there are no magic wands here. There’s no fairy dust we can sprinkle on ourselves to solve our problems. Illinois is a state, so it can’t print its own money.
The governor is insisting on pension reform, but even that will not immediately relieve the massive budget pressures, because any new law will certainly be challenged as unconstitutional and therefore put on hold. It could be years before the courts figure things out. And that assumes the General Assembly can even get something done on this front.
The only thing that will save us is economic growth. Lots of it.
Government has a role here, both in spending and in policies.
Gov. Quinn touted a few hundred million dollars for infrastructure in his State of the State speech, but we could use a truly massive public works project that updates our antiquated water and sewer systems, fixes our roads and bridges, modernizes public transit and tears down old schools and builds new ones. The cold reality, though, is that Illinois just doesn’t have the money to pay for all that stuff, and a tax hike to fund the projects will slow growth in other sectors.
Another funding source has to be found. Maybe the federal government can finally get off its duff and start updating our nation’s infrastructure and schools. The federal stimulus bill four years ago barely touched infrastructure.
Illinois reformed its workers’ compensation laws a couple of years back, but it fell far short of what’s needed. Attorney General Lisa Madigan demanded more reforms several months ago, pointing to a case where a worker flung himself at a vending machine because his treat was stuck. The employee hurt himself. A state appellate court awarded him workers’ compensation benefits. In Illinois, “causation” isn’t part of the equation. You get hurt, you get paid. That’s insane.
Workers’ comp insurance costs are a huge problem for some Illinois businesses, but the doctors and lawyers love the revenues, and they have powerful Springfield lobbies, so nothing substantial gets done. Quinn didn’t even mention the topic this week.
We need bold plans on a decidedly un-bold budget. We need some creativity and some real urgency. Unfortunately, I don’t see either trait in this governor.