JOLIET – The average taxpayer doesn’t operate on a multibillion-dollar budget, so it’s probably difficult to wrap one’s head around the state’s fiscal nightmare, Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger told members of the Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry on Tuesday.
Imagine, if you would, Munger said: $7,000 in bills on the kitchen table, $2,000 in bills in the mail, $110,000 in credit card debt and $100 in your bank account for daily spending.
Illinois is grappling with that same ratio, she said, but tack on six additional zeroes at the end of those figures.
“That’s no way to run a state,” she said.
As comptroller, Munger writes the checks for expenses such as payroll, vendors’ services and pension obligations. Illinois is running out of money, she warned, because 90 percent of expenses that would appear in a typical state budget are being spent at or above fiscal year 2015 levels because of court orders and consent decrees.
“Every day we have to decide: Do we make a payment to foster care, or do we pay the developmentally disabled? These are all court-ordered payments,” Munger said. “Do I run the payroll, which I’m federally obligated to do? … Do I make the contributions into the pension system? Do I pay Medicaid?”
The state income tax rolled back to 3.75 percent in January, resulting in about $5 billion less in annual revenue, Munger said. At the same time, unpaid bills stand at $7.3 billion, and Illinois will owe $400 million in interest and late fees by this fiscal year’s end.
Munger, a Joliet native, paid a visit to the city just one week after Joliet chamber leaders fired off a scathing letter calling on the governor and state leaders to make a budget deal. Chamber leaders earlier this week said the stalemate falls on the shoulders of every politician in Springfield.
‘Shudder at the thought’
Although Munger was addressing the city’s business community Tuesday, the questions posed after her speech came from local nonprofit leaders in attendance who have not been paid for the past nine months for state contracted services.
Ben Swortz, CEO for Cornerstone Services, said his nonprofit depends on state funding to provide group homes and other services to people with developmental disabilities. The agency is working on a line of credit in hopes the state eventually will make good on promised funding, he said.
Although Medicaid reimbursements are flowing in because of court orders, about $1 million attached to contracted services are not, he said. Swortz asked Munger about the state’s ability to honor contracts signed back on July 1.
Munger said she’s legally unable to write checks without legislative authorization.
Peter McLenighan, executive director at Stepping Stones addiction treatment center in Joliet, said he has heard speculation that the budget crisis won’t be resolved until after the November general election. He asked Munger to comment on that scenario.
“I shudder at the thought of waiting until November,” Munger said. “We have organizations hanging by a thread. Without a budget, we are adding billions to our debt because we have turned on the spending spigot. We are letting the courts make decisions about what we pay.”
A tax increase alone won’t solve the problem, Munger said. Illinois will face as much as $12 billion in debt by the end of the current fiscal year. Doubling the state’s income tax rate from 3.75 to 7.5 percent would cover only the backlog, she said.
Munger called on lawmakers to enact many of Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” reforms, including workers’ compensation reform, to do away with burdensome unfunded mandates and to provide property tax relief for homeowners.
She made no mention of the Rauner-backed collective bargaining changes that have driven a wedge between the Republican governor and a Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
When asked afterward why she left that point out of her speech, Munger said she thinks it is best to “focus on what we can agree on.”
“You hear all the time that [these reforms] are anti-middle-class, this is anti-union. Workers’ comp should help unions,” Munger said. “There’s also unfunded mandates. I think they could get in a room together and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to talk about collective bargaining, but we will talk about these things.’”