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Column

UNDERSTANDING ILLINOIS: The afterglow of a new administration will fade fast

Transition committee's plans require money the state doesn't have

ov.-elect J.B. Pritzker has begun the typical minuet of transition to office in January, creating committees to look, respectively, at how he can improve education, infrastructure, social services, what have you. 

I have been a part of three gubernatorial transitions over past decades, and headed one (and was just now, while writing this, invited to serve on a Pritzker committee, which I accepted). 

Large committees of government insiders and outsiders will sit around conference tables and offer prescriptions for saving our state. The well-meaning committee members might help educate the incoming governor, who in J.B.’s case came to his candidacy with little background in Illinois state government.

Most prescriptions will require more money – lots of it. There will be projections that much money can be saved in the future, if only we spend lots more now to address problems, e.g. prisoner recidivism, gang violence, abused children, and poorly educated children. And they might be right.

Yet there is really only one “committee” that matters, and it is a committee of a solitary person – the incoming director of the state budget.

This director will have the uncomfortable task of playing the skeleton at the feast, dimming the election afterglow with the stark reality that there is simply no money to do what they want.

In 1976, I helped staff the transition of newly elected governor Jim Thompson. “Big Jim,” like Pritzker, was and is a man of goodwill who wanted to do right by Illinois. Back then, and still today, doing good seemed to mean spending lots more money for new and expanded programs.

Yet his budget director tried to block him at every turn, as there was no money then either.

I recall Thompson shouting out in exasperation to his budget chief, Bob Mandeville: “OK, Bob, how much money can’t I spend today?”

It’s no different today.

In his campaign, Pritzker called for a graduated income tax (higher rates for higher incomes), but declared most people other than millionaires would see their taxes go down. The result of such would mean at best modest net new dollars for the state treasury. The new dollars probably would not cover the $3 billion annual deficit projected for the future, let alone the $8 billion in unpaid bills.

And the new tax, if ever enacted, would not likely begin generating revenues until the 2022 budget year, the last year of Pritzker’s term. 

First, the Legislature has to vote (spring 2019) to put the question on the ballot in the next general election (November 2020). Then a new Legislature has to enact the tax (spring 2021), which means significant revenue from any such tax wouldn’t flow until the 2022 fiscal year.

In the meantime, the Legislature and governor could increase and/or broaden existing taxes, which the voting public is anything but enthusiastic about doing. The voters say: Cut waste and corruption instead. 

I’m sure there is some waste, though not nearly enough to eliminate the deficit and pay off old bills. In fact, state government already has been hollowed out by budget cuts over the past decade. State employment is down from 84,000 in 2002 to 62,000 today. 

The state children’s department and its staff have been cut significantly in recent years, even though it is obvious to those in the know that the agency is inadequate to its task, a disaster. And have you been to a state park recently? The ones where I walk trails are decrepit. I could go on.

State employee pension costs and Medicaid have been eating the state budget alive, squeezing everything else down or out. We are spending $9 billion a year for pensions, one-quarter of the state general funds budget. I’m all for decent, but not egregious pensions, of which there are too many. Pension sweeteners and inadequate state funding over the decades may bring our state to its knees.

And this past week the state high court declared in a 7-0 decision that union officials can glom onto government pension rolls at ridiculous annual benefits, far greater than they would have received from their union jobs.

We have to find a way to persuade courts that their interpretations of the state constitutional guarantee of pension benefits do not extend to the minimum 3 percent annual compounded increase, nor to union officials who game us taxpayers.

Until then, the afterglow of gubernatorial transitions in Illinois will fade fast.

Jim Nowlan is a former Illinois legislator, agency director, senior aide to three unindicted governors, campaign manager for U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, and professor of government at several universities in Illinois as well as China.

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