Less money, more bills loom for cash-strapped Illinois

Whether the state's income tax rate would drop as scheduled Jan. 1 was one of the biggest questions in Illinois politics for the last four years.

And now that it has, leaving taxpayers with somewhat fatter wallets at the start of the new year, that question has been replaced with what could be a more complicated one.

Now what?

Illinois still had more than $6 billion in unpaid bills as of mid-December. At the same time, the state now is taking in less money under the lower tax rate. And lawmakers face growing costs in the budget they'll make this year.

This week, it was revealed they'll have to pay $680 million more in pension costs than the year before, a big number in an already tight budget.

Suburban lawmakers from both parties who work on the state budget agree: They're waiting to see what Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner proposes to do about it after he takes over in two weeks.

While Rauner hasn't presented a plan, some questions about the state's finances are well known.

How will it all play out? And will those extra dollars stay in your wallet? Here are some scenarios for the year to come.

What's at stake?

The state budget determines how much money public schools get for their operations. The same goes for state universities, which, much to parents' and students' dismay, could raise tuition if the state lowers how much it contributes.

Agencies that care for the disabled, run programs for domestic violence victims or address other social service needs are reimbursed by the state. Delayed state payments in recent years left some suburban agencies on the brink of closure. Many lean more heavily on donors when they need help.

State funding finds its way into daily life in many ways, from paying to fix roads and plow snow, to regulating everything from casinos to pollution, to monitoring people on parole or probation.

When is this urgent?

When Rauner is sworn in Jan. 12, he'll inherit state agencies that already claim they don't have enough money to operate until the end of the fiscal year June 30.

The Department of Human Services, for example, says it wasn't given enough money by lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn.

“The legislature took no action to shrink DHS' responsibility for providing critical human services,” spokesman Tom Green said.

Along with figuring out how to deal with that, Rauner and lawmakers must craft a new budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

What might happen?

Rauner has spent weeks trying to highlight what he calls budget “sins of the past,” but it's unclear what changes he'll seek.

Making up a budget gap could include deep cuts. Rauner also proposed during the campaign adding a state sales tax to some services such as legal fees and gym memberships to bring in more money.

Still, Republicans are optimistic.

“It'll be what we should have been doing four years ago,” state Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, said.

Rauner gave his own campaign $10 million Wednesday, in addition to $10 million combined from businessmen Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein, to try to promote his agenda.

Democrats say Rauner will find governing to be messier and more difficult than campaigning.

State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, said his party's budget-makers have been looking for specific plans from Republicans.

“But when the rubber meets the road, you often just hear crickets from people,” he said.

Who will go along?

Rauner faces a new dynamic in Springfield because he's a Republican governor facing a Democratic legislature. But the last two Democratic governors know that the state's chief executive tends not to get exactly what he wants from lawmakers.

Rauner is scheduled to present his budget proposal Feb. 18, but the final budget due to be approved by May 31 is likely to look different.

“You never get what you want,” state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, said. “You get what you can get.”

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