By John Ruberry
Illinois isn’t at the crossroads. It’s on a collision course after driving off a cliff. It’s that bad here.
The Land of Lincoln faces what is likely its most pivotal two weeks in its 199-year history.
Last week Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican who never ran for political office before, called for a special session to pass an annual budget, which is something that the Illinois General Assembly hasn’t done in over two years. And it’ll be tougher to do so now, as a supermajority will be required to pass a budget because the 2017 session of the legislature ended on May 31. Getting a budget on the governor’s desk theoretically should be easy, thanks to the gerrymandering skills of state House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), as there is a supermajority in the state Senate and a near-supermajority in the House. Madigan, who has held his job for 32 of the last 34 years and is also the chairman of the state Democratic Party, enjoyed a supermajority in the lower chamber for the first two years of Rauner’s term.
The Senate passed a budget bill this spring, one that was way out of balance, but Madigan’s House didn’t even consider it. And while Illinois’ constitution has a balanced budget requirement, none of its budgets have met that standard since 2001.
So why no budget?
I view Madigan’s strategy as an early manifestation of the national Democratic Party’s “Resist” strategy regarding Donald Trump, even though the political boss is a soulless creature who has no manifesto other than maintaining power for himself. And Madigan doesn’t want, at least yet, to have Democrats in the House vote “Yes” on a big tax hike. Yeah, they did so in a lame-duck session in 2011, but there was a Democratic governor in Springfield then to help shoulder the blame.
Rauner offered an extensive “turnaround agenda” as a candidate and he demanded it be included in any tax hike bill once he took office. He’s scaled back on that agenda since then, but the rump of it is still anathema to Madigan and his campaign contributors. Rauner is asking for pension reform, education funding changes, more business-friendly workers’ compensation laws, and a five-year property tax freeze.
So how bad is it in Illinois?
Here are some headlines from just the past week:
- Fiscal Times: Could Illinois be the first state to go bankrupt?
- Financial Times: Illinois is on the fast track to junk by the end of June
- WAND-TV: Illinois colleges drop to junk status rating
- Northwest Herald: As has Puerto Rico, Illinois following dangerous path to the bottom
- Crain’s Chicago Business: Who would want to move into this mess?
- Bloomington Pantagraph: Business: Illinois’ budget mess shackling growth
- Fox Illinois: State roadwork projects may stop if budget impasse continues
- ABC Chicago: Powerball, Mega Millions to drop Illinois due to state’s budget crisis
- AP: Official warns Illinois finances in ‘massive crisis mode’
That last one is the most ominous news as Illinois’ comptroller, Democrat Susanna Mendoza, is warning that Illinois, because of court orders, will soon have to pay out more each month than it receives in revenue. “The magic tricks run out after a while,” says Mendoza, “and that’s where we’re at.”
Illinois has $15 billion in unpaid bills, which is over 40 percent what the state collects in revenue annually. It has over $100 billion in unfunded public worker pension obligations. Its bonds have the lowest rating of any state ever. It is one of only a few states, and the only one in the Midwest, that is losing population.
Pretty horrible. So much so that a “grand bargain” between Rauner and Madigan might end up being too little or too late to prevent the Land of Lincoln from collapse.
The end of Illinois as we know it will arrive by the end of this month. If no deal is reached it’s hard to imagine the Prairie State not ending up in a quasi-bankruptcy situation, even though Congress will need to get involved first. An austerity budget will likely hasten the population exodus, as will a massive tax hike without any reforms.
Another Illinois-style temporary fix will only delay judgement day. And that judgement will only be harsher when it comes.
As Ben Affleck’s character in Argo phrased it, “There are only bad options, it’s about finding the best one.”
John Ruberry, a fifth-generation Illinois resident, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.