We often hear from those in Springfield that Illinois government has a ‘structural deficit’ in its budget. The implication is that state government spending growth is almost on autopilot and our only option is to pay more in taxes. Remember, though, the ‘just pay more’ approach was tried, with the 67% tax increase of 2011, and failed. Illinoisans paid an extra week’s pay per year in higher taxes, but the state’s budget problems did not get any better. Neither did the prospects of working Illinoisans. Illinois still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.
In fact, far from getting better, Illinois has been in a chronic cycle of careening from crisis to crisis over the past few years, seemingly stuck in an economic malaise without any clear path through the tough times and on to brighter days. The lesson is clear: higher taxes without structural reforms will not deliver Illinois to prosperity.
The people of Illinois can be excused if they have decided that this status quo no longer works for them and that the ‘structure’ of Illinois government needs to be remade into something that makes it easier for us to succeed and provide for ourselves and our families.
I believe this was the driving force behind Illinoisans’ rejection of twelve years of one party Democratic rule this past November with the election of Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. He was elected to challenge every conventional Springfield wisdom and do what it takes to push us through these lingering tough times and on to the brighter future we all hope to realize.
Yes, he has prescribed tough medicine to turn our state around. But, the tepid nibbling at the policy margins of the past few years has not delivered us to prosperity; it has merely dragged out the economic pain. The point of doing difficult things during hard times is to fight through those hard times to get to a more prosperous place on the other side. While it is important we focus on solving our immediate fiscal crisis, we can no longer afford to do so to the exclusion of planning for that brighter future we all hope to achieve.
To get there, we need to create an economic environment in our state that results in everyone here being able to get the best job they are capable of doing. This is the only long-term viable way for state government to work for Illinoisans and for Illinoisans to provide the reliable revenue state government needs to do what we expect of it. Being a top job-producing state rather than the jobs laggard Illinois has been is worth literally billions to our state budget bottom line, not to mention the quality of life of those we represent.
So, how do we make that happen?
We need to bring the overall cost of doing business in Illinois down. The less it costs to do business here, the more likely job creators are to take advantage of all we have to offer as a state.
We need to address our state’s long term debt, particularly the $111 billion pension shortfall. This is the equivalent of three years of total state spending. We will pay 25% of your tax dollars next year just to make pension payments. Most states pay around 5%. A debt of this magnitude scares off those who might invest in Illinois and hire Illinoisans.
We need to remove costly unfunded mandates from our schools and local governments that make it more expensive for them to operate.
We need to reform our worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance programs to save both public and private employers money.
We need to truly balance our budget. This means only spending what taxpayers can afford. Controlling spending is hard, but necessary for us to break through to the brighter side.
Difficult choices lie ahead. Recovery from our long economic struggle will be painful at times. But we need to keep our eye on the goal, realizing the bright future that has been beyond our grasp for too long. We join the governor in being willing to work with our friends across the aisle in the Senate to prioritize the people’s money appropriately this budget season.
More importantly, though, we look forward to restructuring Illinois into a place where it is easier for all of us to succeed.