It was déjà vu in Springfield as proponents of more debt pushed Illinois to borrow another $4 billion from the bond market. Their promise? That the state’s backlog of bills would finally get paid down.
This is exactly what we heard almost two years ago, when advocates of the massive $7 billion income tax increase promised our unpaid bills would be gone. Here’s what they said during the lame duck session in January 2011:
“We have some temporary tax increases that are designed to pay our bills, get Illinois back on fiscal sound footing and make sure that our state has a strong economy.” Gov. Pat Quinn
“… Remember the point of this income tax increase is not to expand programs, not to do brand new things in Illinois state government, it is only intended to pay our old bills and deal with the structural deficit. This is not about new spending. It is about trying to bring ourselves in line with the problems of old debt and of a structural deficit.” House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie
Legislators broke these promises and the tax hike was nothing but a failure. Today, Illinois still has more than $9 billion in unpaid bills. The Legislature continues to run structural deficits, appropriating more funds than the revenues it receives. The state’s pension systems are more than $200 billion in the hole and facing insolvency. And the state has been downgraded 10 times by the three major rating agencies since Gov. Quinn took office.
Now, the supporters of more borrowing are renewing those broken promises. This time they want you to mortgage the future to pay down the credit card.
But that’s also a tried and failed strategy. Rather than reforming the pension system, in 2003 former Gov. Rod Blagojevich borrowed more than $10 billion to prop it up. We’ll be paying for that failure for another 20 years. Quinn repeated the same strategy, borrowing $3.5 billion in fiscal year 2010 and another $3.7 billion in fiscal year 2011. Now he owns the worst-funded pension system in the nation and lots more in debt.
Springfield has lost the right to borrow a penny more of Illinoisans hard-earned money. Rather than take on more debt, the state needs to tackle pension, retiree health care and spending reforms. Filling the legislators’ coffers with more money will only allow them to avoid those reforms.
The good news is that the opposition to more debt exists. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka certainly isn’t falling for it.
Yes, Illinois needs to pay down its unpaid bills. But not by borrowing more.
Instead, the state may want to try to pay them down the old-fashioned way: through fiscal discipline, a balanced budget and some spending limits.