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Column

Illinois budget: Business as usual is back

Crafted behind closed doors, 1,245 pages of spending backed by both parties

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

Instead of “shaking up” Springfield as he promised 4 years ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner took the final step Monday to acclimating to the Illinois political culture.

He went along to get along.

On Monday, flanked by a bipartisan assortment of lawmakers, Rauner signed a budget that is likely somewhere between $600 million and $1.5 billion out of balance.

Nothing unusual there. That’s the way Illinois has been doing business for decades – except for that awful two-and-one-half years when it went without a budget. And business as usual is why the state is broke.

The legislative process is supposed to be transparent. But when it comes to the state budget, it rarely is.

During the waning days of the legislative session, caucus leaders filed into a closed room and negotiated with the governor. Once a budget agreement was reached behind those locked doors, senators found themselves voting on the 1,245-page measure a few hours later.

Think any of them knew exactly what they were voting on? No way.

Is this unusual in Springfield? No. But it has never served the public well.

And Bruce Rauner has done little to reform the process.

Taxpayers and bondholders deserve to know how our money is being spent. But the budget document is so opaque, it is often hard to discern whether major new spending initiatives have been slipped into the spending plan.

For example, back in 2005, the General Assembly rejected spending state money on stem-cell research. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who favored the measure, snuck $10 million in stem-cell research spending into the budget by labeling it “scientific research.”

Lawmakers were understandably angry when they figured out they had been tricked into voting for something they had opposed.

This year, Springfield is rife with rumors about what may or may not have been snuck into the budget.

Adam Schuster, director of budget and tax research for the libertarian-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, says $100 million has been slipped into the budget to help fund the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.

Schuster declined to disclose a source for this information. So, we have no way to evaluate its veracity.

But it’s telling that someone knowledgeable about the budget process thinks a $100 million item could be slipped into the spending plan without rank-and-file legislators – or the public – finding out.

Once again, Rauner did little to make the process more transparent.

He’s patting his own back, for just getting a budget passed.

Governor, that’s a minimal expectation for a state chief executive. Should we be impressed?

Last year, the General Assembly passed a $5 billion tax hike over Rauner’s veto. Despite that, the state is expected to finish the fiscal year with between $6 billion and $7 billion in unpaid bills.

Why? Because it’s much more fun to spend money on new programs and pretend the bills will just go away.

The state’s credit rating is the worst among the states. And the unfunded pension liabilities are hovering around $130 billion.

Illinois is in sorry fiscal shape.

Has Rauner “shaken up” Springfield? Well, besides a jiggle here and there, not much has changed.

We deserve better.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.

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