Greising: Pritzker’s Budget Puts Illinois on Best Fiscal Footing in Years, but …

... in a state like Illinois, that's not saying much.

Citing substantial spread of the Covid-19 virus across the state, Illinois Governor J.B. Prtizker announces a statewide mandate requiring masks be worn in all Illinois public schools, preschool through high school, on August 04, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.(Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

The term “election-year budget” has a negative connotation. It implies that the numbers are prepped and presented with votes, not balance sheets, top of mind.

If the budget Gov. J.B. Pritzker presented at an address delivered Feb. 2 gets called that, blame the governor’s speechwriters more than his number crunchers. In an Illinois budget with a decent dose of fiscal care, the wordsmiths fired away at every partisan cheap shot they could take.

This acrid rhetoric was an odd twist for a speech that started with a claim, attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead, that a 15,000-year-old fractured but healed femur was the first sign of civilization: the first evidence of one human caring for another.

In Pritzker’s telling, people who worry that federal American Rescue Plan funds are masking persistent spending overruns are “the same old tired characters who are always so desperate to bad-mouth Illinois.”

Woe be unto them, quoth Pritzker. When it comes time for budget talks, “seats at the grown-up table will be off limits.”

People who call for reforms to address Illinois’ $130 billion in pension underfunding are “the pension naysayers (who) have told us we should ignore the constitution and the protections it provides and instead break our promises to retirees.”

Pritzker could not help himself even after a Chamber of Commerce-style flourish about Illinois having more flavorful food, innovative businesses, industrious workers, distinguished schools, illuminating culture and diverse, intelligent and creative people “than any other state in this great, wide country of ours.”

Such truths, he claimed, were not seen by “those folks who spend their time orbiting Illinois politics just spelunking for misery.”

I’m not sure who those people are, or what caves they crawled out of. But they must have spurned deep-fried Twinkies at the state fair to get Pritzker so ticked.

The taunting rhetoric tainted an important message that formed the spine of Pritzker’s speech. That message is this: Steady fiscal management, improved cost controls, a favorable stock market, federal largesse and a resilient state economy have added up to a healthier Illinois fiscal picture than any in recent years.

And that’s saying not much.

Those improved credit ratings? Yes, we’re no longer dangling on the precipice of junk status, but Illinois remains the lowest-rated among the 50 states. That strengthened pension funding—with the shortfall down to $130 billion from $144 billion a year ago? That’s in large measure due to a strong 2021 stock market, and still worse than any state but New Jersey.

Even so, the improvements are worth noting.

Budget deficits that hit $3.2 billion the year Pritzker took office are behind us, he said, and Pritzker’s hopeful forecast projects a $1.7 billion surplus in the coming fiscal year. In addition, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza has hacked the state’s bill backlog below $3 billion, down from nearly $17 billion less than five years ago.  

The state will book $70 million in cash from finally selling the James R. Thompson Center downtown. That’s a steep price cut from the $300 million Gov. Bruce Rauner once budgeted. But unlike in Rauner’s day, this time the building really is sold, a teardown prevented and redevelopment pending.

The state’s resources are robust enough for Pritzker to meet the $350 million required by the state’s evidence-based funding formula to improve equity in public-school funding statewide. Pritzker failed to meet the target two years ago, a cut whose impact still lingers.

He is even adding to the state’s paltry “rainy day fund.”

Other decisions are purely Pritzker’s option, at a cost to state revenue but with clear political appeal. He proposes suspending a 1% tax on groceries, forgoing around $360 million in revenue statewide. He’ll freeze gas taxes, giving up a 2-cent-per-gallon increase and costing $135 million in revenue. And he’ll offer property tax rebates at a cost of $475 million to the state. 

Pritzker calls this part of his budget the “Illinois Family Relief Plan.” The state can afford it, he says, and the plan will help Illinois families as they struggle with inflation. It also is popular, no doubt, with the people running Pritzker’s re-election campaign.

Think of Pritzker’s Family Relief Plan as the sort of unselfish, caring program Margaret Mead’s prehistoric person might have devised—especially if they needed votes in an election year.