Stopgap spending plan a necessary evil

At the end of June, the General Assembly and governor agreed on a partial spending plan for state operations.

The plan was a mishmash of spending covering FY'16 and FY'17. Funding for elementary and secondary education and for Department of Transportation projects was authorized for all of FY'17 to June 30, 2017. For other expenditures, the authorization was for only six months.

The "stopgap" spending was a necessary evil that did not move us any closer to solving our long-term fiscal problems.

It was necessary, because the state had gone through all of FY'16 without a budget in place. Some action had to be taken to keep our state from crumbling down around us.

It was necessary, because there was uncertainty as to whether schools would receive the monies they need to open on time in the fall. Imagine the outrage if schools did not open as scheduled.

It was necessary, because work on Department of Transportation projects would have been shut down on July 1 without authority to pay contractors. Had projects been shut down, there would be greatly increased costs to get them restarted.

It was necessary, because institutions of higher learning dependent on state funding were financially starving; some were on the brink of closure. Public universities, colleges and community colleges had prepared drastic reduction plans that would have seriously damaged their ability to provide quality instruction.

It was necessary, because many social service agencies were teetering on the brink of collapse due to lack of payment. Those agencies were providing services but they had received no payments for nearly the entire year. Some agencies stopped providing services, and others were ready to do so. Our social service safety net was being shredded.

The "stopgap budget," however, is not a budget at all. A budget consists of two parts: an estimate of revenues and an estimate of spending. Presumably those two estimated numbers are relatively the same and the budget would be in balance.

That's not the case with this legislation. No consideration was given to revenue when authorizing the spending. The spending simply continues spending monies that the state of Illinois does not have.

Recently the comptroller estimated the state's backlog of unpaid bills at $8 billion; that number increases daily. Unlike the federal government, the state of Illinois cannot print money to pay its bills. The state has to have the money in the bank before a check can be sent out. We do not have enough money in our bank account to cover our spending. It's real simple - we are spending more than we are taking in.

The current tax structure in Illinois will bring in General Fund Revenues of about $32.5 billion in the current fiscal year. Yet we are spending at a rate near $38 billion. That's a $5.5 billion out-of-balance situation. All the "stopgap" did was to authorize more spending with no revenue or reductions. That makes getting our budget in balance more difficult.

Since the "stopgap" did not address our state's growing imbalance between revenues and expenditures, I expect credit rating agencies to render a harsh judgment. We did nothing to resolve our budget problem, and the stack of unpaid bills continues to grow. That is not a situation that warrants a favorable credit rating.

This spending only added to the budget confusion. Aside from the education and transportation spending, the "stopgap" patched together 18 months of spending from two fiscal years. When the General Assembly returns to session in November, it will again be faced with the thorny task of completing a full budget for FY'17.

Crafting a budget is the most important action that a legislature can take. Yet the "stopgap" is not a budget. There was no resolution to the partisan issues that kept the budget battle going for an entire fiscal year. If those partisan battles resume when the General Assembly returns to session, then Illinois stands virtually no chance of getting our fiscal house in order.

We have dug ourselves into a deep hole that will take years to get out of. We need to stop digging and get down to the hard work of building and passing a balanced budget. The citizens of our great state deserve no less.

David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, is Illinois state representative from the 53rd District.

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