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What happens when elected officials abdicate their primary responsibility to govern? If you think that's just some silly, rhetorical question, you don't live in Illinois, because that's exactly the scenario playing out in Springfield. Here it is, seven months into fiscal year 2016, and decision makers have yet to enact a General Fund budget for the state. That's incredible, given that in both magnitude and meaning, state elected officials have no greater obligation.
Consider magnitude first. Last year, the FY2015 General Fund budget involved the expenditure of $35 billion in taxpayer money. That's pretty sizeable. It's also meaningful. While roughly $11 billion was targeted for hard costs like debt service and other legally mandated payments, fully $24 billion was invested in current services across communities statewide. In fact, over 90 percent of those service expenditures covered education, health care, human services and public safety. To be clear, it's those services which provide for the basic health and well-being of the citizenry, and go to the very heart of why we elect a governor and General Assembly in the first place. By failing to pass a General Fund budget for FY2016, electeds are basically punting the difficult but fundamental responsibility to make decisions about how to allocate scarce resources among these service priorities; identify which of these services will be cut, despite their high priority, given the state's woeful fiscal condition; or to raise the tax revenue needed to fund core services to the amounts needed to satisfy demographically driven demand.
And make no mistake, Illinois' deteriorating fiscal condition compels those politically difficult decisions to be made. That's because the recent phase-down of the temporary tax increases of 2011 means there'll be some $5 billion less in recurring, annual revenue with which to build a budget in FY2016. Since FY2015 ended with an accumulated deficit of $5.9 billion, if in FY2016 lawmakers simply decided to maintain essential services at FY2015 levels, basic math results in the deficit ballooning to $10.9 billion.
This being Illinois, taxpayers got something even less accountable than a maintenance budget for FY2016 — we got no budget at all. Which doesn't mean public money won't get spent, it's just that, for the most part, no politician voted publicly to authorize the spending. Start with the legal mandate that Illinois pay $11.4 billion in FY2016 for hard costs like debt service. Another $14.34 billion will be spent under a variety of court orders, consent decrees and administrative decisions. For instance, even though there's no budget, courts ruled that Illinois must pay its employees for work they perform. Only in Illinois would that require a court order. There's also the $1.77 billion in health insurance costs that'll be incurred for state workers. Finally, in a rare moment of functionality, the governor and General Assembly actually agreed upon a $6.49 billion FY2016 General Fund appropriation for K-12 education.
So there it is, $34 billion in FY2016 expenditures despite no budget. Of course, this "auto-pilot" spending creates some problems — not the least of which is Illinois will have only $31.2 billion in revenue for FY2016, meaning the accumulated General Fund deficit jumps from its FY2015 level of $5.9 billion to $7.8 billion.
Even more troubling is what doesn't get funded under this auto-pilot approach to the budget — like anything for higher education. In FY2015, Illinois invested $1.99 billion in community colleges, public universities and the Monetary Assistant Program that provides scholarship money to low and middle income students so they can afford to go to college — all of which gets completely zeroed-out in FY2016. Vulnerable people get whacked as well. That's because FY2016 "auto-pilot" spending fails to include $1.5 billion of FY2015 investments in social services involving everything from after-school activities to mental health supports. Worse, no politician has to go on record voting for any of those cuts — they just happen, no hearing, no public debate, and no accountability.