The Illinois Budget: An Embarrassing and Sad Spectacle

07/02/2010 03:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today Governor Quinn signed into law the bills that amount to the state budget for fiscal year 2011. These are the bills the General Assembly sent him, together with roughly half of the money needed to pay for them. The Governor made some alterations and revealed a host of decisions around the funding for agencies and programs. The budget includes cuts of over $240 million for elementary and secondary education, $100 million for higher education, and $312 million for human services. Ninety percent of Illinois general fund spending is aimed at education, health care, human services, and public safety. It follows that those are the vital things being cut, like it or not.

Governor Quinn and his Administration made it clear that they are not happy with these cuts, necessitated by the failure of the General Assembly to produce sufficient revenue to responsibly fund the government. The Governor himself has repeatedly explained the need for and expressed support for the significant new revenues needed to sustain Illinois financially. He has been criticized for failing to engineer support for those revenues from the General Assembly, but he at least was clear about the need and his own position.

Interest groups, representatives of needy populations and others will be making specific points about the decisions and priorities in the Governor's actions to implement this budget. Those are important debates and worth close attention. Yet they have the feel of a desperate squabble over scraps.

Most of the cuts in this budget are harmful and unwise. They are not driven by policy considerations or evidence-based program evaluations, but by the brutal calculus of the state's fiscal default. These are the kinds of sorry, no-win decisions that must be made when the Legislature hands the Governor a budget with a shortfall that is half of the needed money. The truth is that the budget does not contain the resources to ensure that the items not being cut will in fact be paid for. Some will, some will not. All will have to wait far too long.

The bigger picture here is that the crisis cries out for responsible leadership and a comprehensive solution that includes adequate new revenues. An election season is not the time to hide from responsibility, take shelter behind a self-justifying poll ("my poll says my constituents do not want to pay higher taxes"), or blithely assert with no specifics that there is a magic way the crisis can be solved without new revenues. It is the time to tell the truth, to teach the constituency what is needed to solve a historic crisis, and then to lead the effort to win it. Illinois voters are capable of adult decisions - nobody wants to pay higher taxes, but most will understand the need. A comprehensive solution is one that puts in place the revenue infrastructure to navigate through the crisis over at least two years. A comprehensive solution will include pain - we have that part already - but it must also avoid making unwise and harmful cuts to essential services. And it must have adequate new revenues to back up strategic borrowing that is also needed to get through the crisis.

For now, we have the embarrassing and sad spectacle of the distribution of scraps and the dismantling of important policies and programs by default. Illinois needs a responsible budget that stops cutting vital programs, meets the state's needs, keeps the state's promises, and pays the state's bills.