Editorial: What we need from governor is an honest budget

Every year about this time, Illinoisans get an object lesson in what their leaders think of them and their state constitution. This lesson comes in the form of the governor's budget address.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is scheduled to present his proposed Fiscal Year 2018-19 spending plan on Wednesday. The Illinois Constitution requires the governor to present a balanced budget to the legislature every year. The intent of that provision was to ensure that politicians do not spend more money than the state has, and it has been obeyed with a nod and wink perhaps since the very beginning in 1970 but certainly over the past 25 years.

Lawmakers and governors frequently have accommodated the "balance" requirement by simply borrowing the budget shortfall. On several occasions, they went so far as to "borrow" - and we use that term loosely - money from state employee pension funds.

The result: Following decade after decade of "balanced" budgets, Illinois finds itself with $8.43 million in unpaid bills, this after borrowing $6 billion to catch up on some of the worst of its delayed payments. It has paid $1 billion in penalties for late payments. It has unpaid pension debt of nearly $130 billion.

One needn't be a financial wizard to conclude that the state has not been living up to its constitutional mandate to balance spending and revenue every year.

Gov. Rauner insists that he has offered balanced budgets in each year of his term at the head of state, but one can accept that claim only via the most arduous arithmetical contortions - accepting, for instance, the inclusion in the governor's "balanced" FY 2017-18 budget a penciled notation for $4.57 billion in projected revenue from "working together for a grand bargain."

But the governor is not alone responsible for the linguistic legerdemain that results in year after year of balanced budgets somehow producing overwhelming debt. As one case in point, in the midst of the infamous two-year stalemate over the budget, lawmakers presented Rauner a spending plan that openly showed $7 billion in excess spending over revenue.

Considering such a history and considering the tension of this highly charged election year, we are understandably wary of what to expect from the governor's speech and, even before we hear it, of how much to believe. And, therein lies the greatest challenge for Gov. Rauner. He's not faced merely with the responsibility of presenting a reasonable spending plan in which realistic income projections match realistic expense expectations. He also has to restore Illinoisans' faith that anything he offers is an honest forecast of what's to come.

With some justification, Rauner observes that lawmakers have never given his budget proposals serious attention. Partisan politics - both within his budgets and within the Democrat-controlled General Assembly - no doubt have much to do with that. And they indict the legislative branch as much as they indict the executive.

But healing, if any is to be found, can start with the governor's speech. If Rauner can be candid and cooperative, presenting a budget that makes no vain promises, honestly portrays the difficulties confronting the state and truly shows expenses that match revenues, he could go a long way toward at least getting the attention of the citizenry. He might foster some faint hope that someone will take budgeting seriously in Illinois.

In an election year full of angry accusations and wild promises (see our editorial Sunday on Democrats' revenue obsession), that is a lot to hope for. But if you get right down to it, it also is the only thing worth hoping for.

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