There's room for debate over whether the fact that Illinois managed to get a budget on time this year merits all the back slapping being done by Republican and Democratic state leaders, but there's no denying the agreement produced sighs of relief inside and outside the halls of the Capitol. For one year, at least, presuming all the revenue projections hold true, schools, governments and social services agencies won't spend their days wondering how long they can keep the doors open.
That matter of the revenue projections does deserve some attention, though -- not merely because predicting income is invariably a convenient and inexact budgetary tool but more so because of one of the areas where revenue projection figures prominently in this budget -- public employee pensions.
While everyone rightly touts the good news lawmakers have for schools, the hulking, snorting elephant in this budget -- and likely in many upcoming state spending plans -- is the $130 billion-and-counting shortfall in the state's pension liabilities.
Thankfully, lawmakers did at least acknowledge the problem, approving a slate of incentives designed to attract some teachers and other public employees into short-term buyouts that could eat into the deficit to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. If the incentives work as hoped -- and that's a big IF -- this is a reasonable start. But it's only a start.
Even hundreds of millions of dollars are of limited consequence against a deficit that's in the hundreds of billions. Ever since the state Supreme Court shot down a previous effort to get control of the pension debt, the subject -- once the predominant topic of conversation related to Illinois' financial health -- has been little more than a whisper, a whimper and a biting of the lower lip.
Thus, what was once considered an unacceptable shortage in the $80 billion range has ballooned to going on twice that amount. Finding an answer, as history shows us all too well, is not going to be easy. But defraying an answer could be disastrous.
So far, the subject has played little to no role in the race for governor, and it is rarely talked about in campaigns for legislature, but when the dust settles from the November election, it may well be true that failure or inability to deal with this issue could be more of a headache for the next governor -- whoever he may be -- than even the recent trend of standoffs over spending and economic incentives.
More importantly, it will be more of a headache for taxpayers and all the affected pensioners. And, schools, governments and social services agencies could find themselves staring yet again into the cold maw of uncertainty they've only recently barely escaped. Election politics have afforded us a short financial breather. We and our political leaders need to use it to get serious about how to deal with that elephant.