SPRINGFIELD — Some University of Illinois scholars have taken to talking about the state of Illinois’ budget problems in apocalyptic terms — literally.
The university’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs new report —“Apocalypse Now? The Consequences of Pay-Later Budgeting in Illinois” — says the current budget year’s deficit is on track for $6 billion. It projects next year’s budget shortfall will be $9 billion if nothing changes.
The report calls for “a combination of cuts in spending and increased revenue. These will be politically difficult and unpopular, and implementing them will require strong leadership and vision.”
But not everyone sees it that way.
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, said he’ll be hard-pressed to agree to a tax increase of any type without first seeing every state agency examined and spending of all types reconsidered.
“A couple of hundred million dollars here and there and, you know, it’s not long before we’re talking about real money,” he said, echoing the late U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Pekin.
Sosnowski said however well-intentioned, state agencies and most programs could be reduced without eliminating a safety net for the truly needy.
But short of change in the size and nature of Illinois government, “If you continue to feed the beast, nothing is going to get better,” he said.
The university report says, “Illinois citizens must reduce their expectations for the services that they can expect from government and be prepared to pay more for government now and in the future.”
Newly elected Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has been preaching a message of cutbacks, bettering the business climate and “shared sacrifice” to come.
Rauner spokesman Lance Trover told Illinois News Network, “Governor Rauner has been saying for a long time that the budget is far worse than has been let on. Governor (Pat) Quinn left the state in dire financial shape. It is clear that we need to restructure state government if we are to get our state back on track for the next generation. Failure to enact fundamental reforms would cause the taxpayers to throw good money after bad and that can’t happen.”
Democrats who control the legislature haven’t publicly tangled with Rauner but instead point to two dates: Feb. 4 and Feb. 18, when Rauner is to present his state of the state and budget addresses.
Some lawmakers are saying Rauner will have no choice but to make big cuts and look for new revenue, also generally known as new or increased taxes.
But not everyone is willing to concede the governor must call for new or higher taxes. They want a stripped-down state government and budget reform they say will grow Illinois economy and ultimately be fairer to taxpayers.
House Republican John Cabello, of Machesney Park, said, “The taxpayers are stretched as far as they can be stretched. Some are being forced to choose between paying for medication or paying for housing.”
He added, “It’s our job to not keep going back to them and say, ‘We just need a little bit more,’ because that little bit more just keeps growing and growing and growing.”
Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, is another voice calling for leaner government. He said the General Assembly and governor have an obligation to reduce the size and scope of state government.
Additionally, he said, Illinois needs a reduction in overly heavy business regulation to encourage investment and job growth.
Only then, he said, can Springfield ask for more money.
“This is a slow turn-around,” Sandack said. “This is going to take time.”
But it starts now, he added. “Tough votes are coming.”
A ranking Democrat who works on budget issues said the advocates for hard cuts have a difficult task.
Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, said $9 of every $10 from the general fund — essentially the state’s checkbook — are committed to four areas: education, health care, human services and public safety.
“Nine out of every ten dollars are spoken for,” he said. “When you look at debt reduction, paying down old bills, funding other agencies, it becomes really, really difficult.”
Mark Fitton is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.