Wehrli: 'People make money off of this chaos we call state government'

By Austin Berg, Illinois Policy Institute | Jun 3, 2019

Before noon on Friday, May 30, Illinoisans had not seen a single line of the state budget.

But by Saturday morning, they learned they were on the hook for a 1,581 page spending plan that will cost a record $40 billion. The Illinois House and Senate passed the budget on a bipartisan vote of 83-35 and 40-19, respectively. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign it into law.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Senate passed a $45 billion infrastructure package that includes new spending on bridges, roads and state facilities. The House could vote on that plan as early as today.

The tax hikes needed to pay for that infrastructure plan include doubling the state’s motor fuel tax – which would make Illinois’ total gas tax burden the second-highest in the nation – as well as hiking vehicle registration fees, parking taxes, cigarette taxes, imposing a new tax on streaming services such as Netflix, and more. This revenue package has not yet come up for a vote.

The need for a true balanced budget amendment and spending cap in Illinois has never been clearer. Without constitutional restraints, state lawmakers have continued to push a backwards budgeting process that prioritizes the politically powerful over basic transparency and deliberation.

In a committee hearing on the budget, state Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, questioned House Democratic Majority Leader Greg Harris on the state’s budget process.

“It is clear as mud,” Wehrli said. “Year after year after year we play hide the money because somebody’s getting rich. People make money off of this chaos we call state government.”

Lack of solid budgeting basics has played a large part in giving Illinois the lowest credit rating of any state, billions of dollars in unpaid bills and the highest pension-debt-to-revenue ratio of any state in history.

While the General Assembly will give voters in November 2020 a choice to vote on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s progressive tax constitutional amendment, lawmakers have not voted on or even debated two proposed constitutional amendments that would put the state on sound fiscal footing: a true balanced budget amendment and a constitutional spending cap.

Earlier this year, seven House Democrats and 10 Republicans signed on to House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 27, which would bind state spending to state revenue each fiscal year.

Specifically, it would prohibit counting debt, refinancing or fund sweeps as revenue – accounting games state leaders have played for years. Most importantly, it would bring Illinois in line with the majority of states by requiring the budget to balance at the end of the fiscal year, rather than just during the planning stage. Illinois is one of just 11 states that allow annual deficits to be carried from one year to the next.

A proposed constitutional spending cap that tied state spending growth to taxpayer income growth also received bipartisan support in Springfield this year. Without a mechanism for limiting the growth in spending to a sustainable level, more painful tax hikes could be on the horizon. But if Illinois moves to enforce fiscal discipline on its state lawmakers, it would join 27 other states that as of 2015 had tax or spending limits – 15 of those enshrined in state constitutions.

By demanding change in the budget process, taxpayers can put Illinois on a path to fiscal discipline, which elected officials have proven unwilling to adopt voluntarily.

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