False hope, can-kicking and a pay cut for working people was more than enough for 2017 to take the title: the worst year ever for Illinois taxpayers.
With the Illinois General Assembly not set to return to Springfield until January 2018, this year has secured its place. It’s been a cruel reminder of how the game is still played in Springfield.
Let’s start from the beginning, the first day of legislative session, back in January.
That’s when Illinois House Democrats voted to crown Mike Madigan House speaker for the 17th time. This ensured he would become the longest-serving state House speaker in modern U.S. history. Soon after, the chamber passed the House rules, which make Madigan the most powerful state legislative leader in the nation.
So for the vast majority of Illinoisans who disapprove of the speaker’s leadership, the year began with a gut punch.
The year also began without a state budget. That came with a pain all its own. Social service providers especially struggled to give adequate help to Illinoisans in need, with little certainty as to how long they could keep their doors open. Their funding took a back seat to pensions and government worker compensation – including lawmaker pay.
That said, claims that the budget impasse did irreparable harm to the state’s economy are overblown. Illinois’ growth has been dismal since the Great Recession, budget or not. The state remains a laggard.
Madigan continued to declare the lack of a budget Illinois’ biggest problem. Not people leaving in droves. Not social service spending being crowded out by over promising to government workers and the debt that continues to accumulate over that fact. And not an embarrassingly weak economy leaving families in the lurch as other states flourish Madigan’s solution: the largest permanent income tax increase in state history, without any substantial reforms.
Meanwhile, in negotiations with the speaker, Gov. Bruce Rauner began to slowly walk back his Turnaround Agenda, abandoning items such as term limits, real property tax relief and collective bargaining reform. This helped open the door for the Madigan plan.
In addition to Senate President John Cullerton and Democratic House members, Madigan found more than a dozen House Republicans to go along with his budget and tax increases. Ultimately, Madigan successfully overrode Rauner’s veto of the state budget, including a $5 billion tax hike. Thus ended the budget fight. It was July 6.
So while 2017 began with no budget, the year ended with a budget.
That sounds like progress, except for the fact that despite the massive tax hike raiding the pockets of Illinois workers and businesses, Madigan’s budget is already in tatters. The 2018 budget is on track to spend at least $1.3 billion more than it takes in.
Illinoisans were hoodwinked. And there’s little reason to think things won’t get worse.
Take the new education funding formula, for example. Heralded as a bipartisan victory in August, it constituted a bailout of the fiscally irresponsible Chicago Public Schools while promising billions of new education dollars the state simply doesn’t have.
Meanwhile, the state’s largest government worker union has successfully blocked commonsense changes to its state contract for more than two years, most recently winning a legal battle over automatic raises. Illinois state workers are the nation’s highest-paid after adjusting for cost of living.
This isn’t to say Illinoisans didn’t see a couple of bright spots in 2017. A new tax credit scholarship program will provide opportunities for low-income children to attend good schools. And smart-on-crime efforts in the criminal justice system will give Illinoisans who have paid their debt to society a shot at more productive lives.
But the state’s pain points remain.
Madigan dealt with Illinois’ crushing pension debt and confiscatory property taxes as he always has, with plenty of meaningless votes throughout the year – all meant to give lawmakers phony talking points for their re-election campaigns next November, without changing anything.
Don’t be duped.
The biggest obstacle Illinoisans face in Springfield remains the same: an all-powerful House speaker, and members of both parties who are all too eager to kowtow.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.