They say trouble comes in threes.
And the Illinois legislature is dealing with trouble aplenty as it opens the spring legislative session facing substantial challenges from a trio of the usual suspects: public pensions, Medicaid funding, and budgeting for the next fiscal year in a state that currently owes $8.5 billion in overdue bills.
• Illinois will owe $5.8 billion this year to pension systems covering public school teachers, state workers and the legislators themselves. But even payment in full won't touch an $83 billion deficit in pension funding arising from the state's past failures to pay into the pension systems, expanded benefits and poor returns on investments.
• Medicaid expenses have grown so steeply they're on track to cost roughly $15 billion in the fiscal year starting July 1, a huge part of the overall state budget despite changes last year that include moving some suburban patients into managed care, capping eligibility for the All Kids health care program and raising prescription co-pays.
• Those two issues threaten to consume Illinois' budget (as well as revenue from the 2011 state income tax hike we all were reminded of with the tax filing deadline this week.) Schools, social services and virtually every other state-funded service have suffered greatly.
Our familiarity with the hand-wringing over these perennial problems risks masking how serious Illinois' financial problems have become. Perhaps the sky hasn't fallen yet, but the dark clouds certainly are descending fast.
The session is off to a rocky start. Separate legislative groups are meeting on pensions and Medicaid. Both have missed their deadlines, but Quinn seems poised to go ahead with his own plans anyway, starting today with his goal of finding $2.7 billion in cuts to Medicaid.
It's a six-week sprint to the May 31 deadline for approving a new state budget -- a tight time frame by any measure, when you're a lawmaker stuck between financial necessity and the fears and needs of state workers, retirees, and low-income residents.
There's no room for partisan posturing aimed at leveraging an advantage in the Nov. 2 general election.
In 2010, lawmakers notoriously put off controversial action until after the November election. Then, in the weeks before the winners were sworn in, the lame-duck legislature raised income taxes, abolished the death penalty and approved civil unions.
This year, the big ticket items can't wait, nor do voters have the stomach for six weeks of the legislature fiddling while Rome burns, so to speak.
The issues facing the legislature are big, controversial and crucial for the state's future. Let's get on with it.