Thompson says state in 'worst position ever'

  • Jim Thompson

    Jim Thompson

 
 
Updated 10/20/2015 5:28 AM

For the second time in less than a week, a Republican predecessor of Gov. Bruce Rauner has blasted the condition of the state under the Winnetka private equity investor's watch.

"This is the worst position the state of Illinois has ever been in," said former Gov. Jim Thompson, the state's longest-serving governor from 1977 to 1991 and namesake of the state government building fellow Republican Rauner wants to put up for private auction.

 

"I agree that it's going to take some difficult negotiations to solve this," Thompson said in a phone interview with the Daily Herald. "That's the responsibility of the governor and the legislature. They will have to do their jobs."

Thompson, largely considered responsible for establishing the safety net of social services the state currently has in place, said the challenge is passing a budget to fund critical programs and services not only now, but also in the future.

"The problem is that every day the budget is delayed the state gets deeper in debt," Thompson said. "When there is a final agreement, more money will have to go to lessening the debt than goes to services."

The state has now gone more than 100 days beyond its constitutional deadline to have a budget in place. The Democratic-controlled legislature sent Rauner a budget over the summer, but Rauner vetoed it with the exception of one portion funding local schools.

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While a vast majority of the budget is being paid out through court orders, consent decrees and continuing appropriations, the state's pile of unpaid bills is growing rapidly.

Last week, Comptroller Leslie Munger announced the state is unable to make its November payment to its pension funds.

Fitch Ratings on Monday downgraded Illinois' rating on $26 billion in outstanding bonds because of the crisis, and Moody's Investors Service warned that the state's inability to make its November pension payment could further hurt its already dismal credit rating.

Rauner says he wants a number of pro-business reforms in place before he'll negotiate on taxes to balance the budget -- among them, union-weakening provisions that Democrats say that are at the core of their party's beliefs. The leaders of the legislature and the governor have not met in months.

The Springfield State Journal-Register reported last week that former Gov. Jim Edgar said Rauner shouldn't "hold the budget hostage" while calling for other state government reforms.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Edgar, who served as governor in the 1990s, said Illinois is in the worst shape he's seen in decades.

Rauner's office said Edgar is entitled to his opinion but noted Illinois' challenges have been decades in the making and require serious action to fix.

Edgar was governor when lawmakers approved a pension payment plan that allowed them to pay minimal amounts to the funds, contributing to the massive payments Illinois must make now and the state's more than $100 billion unfunded liability.

Thompson didn't put the blame solely on Rauner, saying he makes a practice of not offering "unsolicited advice" to a governor and "doesn't plan to start now."

"Everyone's got a different style," he said.

However, he conceded, "running the government is not like running a business."

"What I'm saying is both sides have to sit down and look at what they've requested. And if it's clear the other side can't deliver those, even if they wanted to, then they have to negotiate on the basis of what each side can deliver."

Asked about Thompson's comments, Rauner's spokeswoman Catherine Kelly in a statement sought to shift the blame solely on Democrats' shoulders. Rauner repeatedly has pointed at Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan as the obstacle.

"The state is in the worst position ever because Democrats in the legislature refuse any structural reforms to clean up the fiscal mess caused by decades of mismanagement," Kelly wrote. "Illinois needs lasting structural changes to fix the fiscal challenges facing the state, not just another tax hike with no reforms."

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

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