Even people who study Illinois' financial picture carefully can quickly turn cross-eyed trying to process all the competing numbers. Consider such confusions as: $100 billion that can variously apply to either the amount the state owes the pension system or the shortfall in the amount the system owes pensioners; $8.5 billion, fluctuating daily, in unpaid state bills at the end of April; a budget deficit once pegged at $15 billion, now magically "poofed" into disuse, replaced by $7 billion in new tax revenues and the aforementioned $8-plus billion in unpaid bills.
In such company, a puny $1.3 billion seems barely worthy of notice. Yet, some lawmakers are latching onto that figure -- identified as an "April surprise" caused by an unexpectedly high collection of income taxes -- as an opportunity to protect pet projects or restore lost spending in the state's struggling new budget.
With the Friday deadline for a new budget looming and total "unexpected" revenues hovering around as much as $3.4 billion since December, we have just one thought to emphasize for lawmakers contemplating revenue-thirsty programs. Don't do it.
This is not easy to say. We as much as anyone want programs for Illinois' schools and social services agencies to stay as strong as possible, and it is sorely tempting to consider the effect that an extra $1.3 billion could have for some recipients. But the reality is that the "April surprise" is a virtual blip on the state's electronic spreadsheet.
Actually, the best use for the unplanned-for largesse has already been undertaken. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has applied all the money from the unexpected tax revenues to pay down the backlog of bills -- money on which thousands of schools, vendors, municipalities and social agencies are counting. That backlog was $8.5 billion on April 30. As of last week, Topinka said, it was $5.8 billion.
Yes, we know. Again with the numbers.
What is scary is that some folks looking at them see the wrong opportunities. They would paint this picture as evidence the state can ease up, even if slightly, on the cutting mentality that has defined the spending debate this year.
But that is dangerous, short-term thinking, the kind of immediate gratification that has led us to the sorry condition in which we find ourselves today. To the contrary, the strict control of spending should remain an unwavering driver of the state's fiscal thinking, and no mere temporary windfall -- caused, one must add, mostly by taxpayers hoping to take advantage of 2012 rates, thus cutting down on what might otherwise have been collected for 2013 -- can have a meaningful long-term effect for the state nor for any agency receiving its assistance.
Topinka -- noting that because of the usual fluctuations, the bill backlog could again reach $7.5 billion in August -- put it this way: "Illinois must not let a strong tax season burn a hole in its pocket. This is not the time for new spending. Just the opposite, we need to use these final days of session to pass the leanest budget possible, and address the long-term challenges facing our state."
We say, simply, "Amen."