Gov. Pat Quinn’s Office of Management and Budget recently released its three-year budget projections for Illinois’ General Fund. According to the report, Illinois will end fiscal year 2013 with a $242 million budget surplus.
Does that mean Illinois, the quintessential example of a fiscally irresponsible state, finally buckled down and balanced its budget?
Not even close.
Right next to the $242 million surplus in Quinn’s budget forecast is the state’s unpaid bills - totaling $8.3 billion by the end of 2013.
Illinois has a constitutional requirement to balance its budget. The governor is required to submit a balanced state budget to the General Assembly such that proposed expenditures do not exceed the funds estimated to be available during that fiscal year. This rule doesn't technically apply to Quinn’s recent budget forecast, but if it did the forecast would fulfill the state's constitutional requirement.
In fact, Illinois has fulfilled the constitutional requirement to balance the budget without actually having a balanced budget every year since 2002. During each of these years, the state has essentially had to use money from the current year to pay bills incurred during the prior year. Hardworking Illinois families are forced to shoulder the consequences of this fiscal irresponsibility through higher taxes and broken promises. It needs to stop.
Here’s the problem. Illinois’ balanced budget requirement is wholly inadequate. It’s nothing more than an illusion of fiscal discipline because it allows for borrowing and deficit spending to close budget gaps.
The solution to this problem is simple because the principle of budget balance is simple. It’s a common-sense practice of spending no more than one takes in. Operating under this principle is a hallmark of responsible stewardship, both in politics and in everyday life.
A balanced budget requirement is not a Democrat or Republican issue. And because hardworking taxpayers are the lifeline for government operations, balancing the budget is not only an issue of fiscal responsibility, but also an issue of morality.
Illinois must strengthen its balanced budget requirement to include the following:
- Deficits cannot be carried forward.
- Borrowing, fund sweeps and refinancing debt cannot be counted as revenues.
- The comptroller must complete an independent certification of revenue estimates.
- The comptroller must verify and endorse planned expenditures as less than or equal to revenues estimates.
- The governor must submit the balanced budget and the legislature must approve the budget.
A strong balanced budget requirement means that spending is paid for and promises are kept. Operating within a common-sense fiscal framework would pay huge dividends to our state’s fiscal future.
Ben VanMetre is Senior Budget and Tax Policy Analyst for Illinois Policy Institute