“The truth is that over the past 35 years, too many governors and members of the General Assembly have clung to budget fantasies rather than confronting hard realities, especially with respect to pension and Medicaid investments. Today, our rendezvous with reality has arrived. We must navigate our budget out of past decades of poor fiscal management, deferring bills to the future, and empty promises.”
— Gov. Pat Quinn, Feb. 22, 2012
Rare is the day when we aren’t lobbied by passionate advocates for state spending on early-childhood initiatives, or people with disabilities, or public universities, or struggling senior citizens, or K-12 schools, or (your household’s heartfelt cause here). Many of the supplicants are furious with a tight state budget proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, the target of a union-driven “No Quinn Cuts” campaign.
We react to the hardship stories with sympathy and often empathy: These priorities touch many of our families, too.
But it’s time for a frank conversation with advocacy groups, and their leaders, and individual Illinoisans who fear that state budget cuts threaten all of these needs and more. Their fears now escalate after Thursday’s 91-16 vote of the Illinois House to reduce spending in most areas of state government.
If more cuts are your fear, advocates, you’re correct. You’re frogs in pots, and the stove will only get hotter. But we also have to say you’re part of the problem. Legislators think you can’t, and won’t, fight back. Because that’s not your nature or your history. So we ask:
Where were you when lawmakers were making reckless pension promises and expanding Medicaid rolls?
And where are you now that some courageous or chastened legislators are trying to enact pension and Medicaid reforms? Are you fighting alongside them? Or are you merely watching, and hoping.
Quinn is dead-right to make pensions-and-Medicaid his mantra this spring. Why so? Because these two categories are seizing control of state spending:
• One of every five dollars the state spends from its operating funds in the fiscal year that begins July 1 will go to pension costs.
• An even bigger share of general funds spending will go to Medicaid, which now covers more than one-fifth of Illinois’ population.
• And because of all that poor fiscal management Quinn faulted, the state’s unpaid bills total some $8 billion. Remember, the Civic Federation of Chicago projects that total will quadruple, to nearly $35 billion, in just five years; fully three-fifths of that deadbeat debt could be for Medicaid services alone.
As a result, the budget-cutting that has you so agitated today is most likely the early going of a years-long campaign.
How long, then, will those of you in the social services community, and other communities now being squeezed by Springfield, tolerate these inexorable spending trends? How many of you will have to close your doors, or abandon your missions, before the desperate survivors among you come off the sidelines?
We’ve heard, and can’t accept as valid, the excuse many of you privately voice: that you want to keep your distance from squabbles among the General Assembly, the unions and the Quinn administration. You don’t want to risk blowback, you’d rather keep your purity.
Some of you, we expect, will take that nobility to early graves. Again: Until Illinois reforms pensions and Medicaid, cruel budget realities will choke you and your causes.
This week your legislators begin a two-week vacation. But not because they’ve worked themselves to exhaustion solving the pension and Medicaid challenges. We hope that, while they’re home, you’ll chase them down and press them on pensions and Medicaid.
If they try a deflection play — assuring you that they’re awaiting late April reports from Quinn’s working groups on those two topics — don’t be fooled. That’s as disingenuous as the customary Springfield doublespeak that “Everything is on the table.”
The key questions for each lawmaker: The governor wants pension and Medicaid reforms passed this spring. Are you as committed to that as he is? Um, is that long and convoluted answer a yes or a no?
We continue to hear that some legislative leaders want to stall talk of pension reforms until after the Nov. 6 election. Sure, they’ll be happy to act now on legislation to end some of Illinois’ many pension abuses, and that’s good. But because they’re counting on support from organized labor to get re-elected, they’d rather dodge any big and lucrative reforms, including the urgent need for less generous retirement benefits going forward for current employees.
Quinn is correct: This spring needs to be a rendezvous with reality.
And reality, advocates, is that if you don’t lose your timidity and come off the sidelines, the strong interests bent on defeating major pension and Medicaid reforms are likely to do just that.
That means more years of pensions and Medicaid consuming close to half of Illinois’ operating budget.
It means continued strangulation of your priorities, leaving you weaker and weaker.
It means the tight budget you complain about today will be the comparatively lavish budget you remember with fondness tomorrow.