The latest Illinois credit-rating downgrade from Fitch Ratings is chock-full of phrases that could be used in the next campaign cycle against the governor and other incumbents.
The one that’s made the most headlines is “unprecedented failure,” as in: Fitch’s downgrade “reflects the unprecedented failure of the state to enact a full budget for two consecutive years and the financial implications of spending far in excess of available revenues, which has resulted in increased accumulated liabilities and reduced financial flexibility.”
But that’s just stating the obvious. Pretty much anybody paying half attention out there knows the people who run the government are participating in an “unprecedented failure.” This has never happened before in Illinois, or in any other state for that matter.
However, here’s another Fitch phrase: “fundamentally weakened,” as in: “Even if the current attempts at a resolution to the extended impasse prove successful, Fitch believes that the failure to act to date has fundamentally weakened the state’s financial profile.”
In other words, digging out from under this impasse is going to be a long, hard, painful slog. And the longer the impasse lasts, the more difficult that process will become.
As the state’s economic activity appears to slow, a third Fitch observation is worth noting here: “Illinois has failed to capitalize on the economic growth of recent years to bolster its financial position.”
While other states were piling up surpluses during the national economic recovery, Illinois was creating a mountain of debt mainly because Democrats allowed the 2011 tax hike to partially expire and the Republican governor wouldn’t negotiate a new revenue and spending deal until he got his precious economic reforms. So if the national economy does enter a recession soon, Illinois will be in a truly horrible spot.
One more phrase from Fitch: “very weak,” as in: “Illinois’ operating performance, both during the great recession and in this subsequent period of economic growth, has been very weak.”
Starting in 2002, Illinois has elected three governors in a row who can’t seem to get their arms around the job. And instead of helping them do their jobs, legislative Democrats, particularly in the House, have preferred to fight and obstruct them. Even the income-tax hike turned out to be a failure, because it was temporary, expiring midway through a fiscal year while a Democratic governor was heading out the door. “Very weak,” indeed.
And speaking of weak, Governor Bruce Rauner indicated to the Chicago Tribune last week that he plans to propose a budget much like the one he unveiled in 2016.
Last year, the governor punted on $3.5 billion in cuts needed to put his proposal into balance. Instead of outlining the actual cuts, and therefore wearing the political jacket for suggesting those cuts, he simply said he was willing to work with the General Assembly on finding where to cut, or the General Aseembly could give him the authority to make the cuts on his own – without first explaining where he would cut.
If cuts became necessary, the governor told his legislative audience last year, “I would ask the legislature to work with us to make these tough decisions. If you are not willing to do that, then give the executive branch the flexibility to reallocate resources and make reductions to state spending as necessary.”
And this is what Rauner told the Tribune last week: “Either the General Assembly authorizes me to make cuts – not my first choice, but I’ll do that – or let’s work together to do a balanced budget with cuts, and what I prefer is a balance of cuts, some revenues, and major structural change.”
State law forbids governors from using revenue streams that aren’t currently in place to balance their budget proposals. Rod Blagojevich did that time and time again, coming up with tax or fee plans that magically balanced his proposal. But every reform has its downside, and the downside to this one is that instead of using phony revenues to balance a budget plan, Rauner has used phony cuts.
The root of “leadership” is “lead,” and that, by definition, means going first. Our state Constitution, however flawed, built that leadership into its two main budgetary mandates. First, the governor proposes a balanced budget, then the General Assembly passes a balanced spending plan. Neither has worked out too well of late, or for quite a while. But the state-constitutional-convention delegates obviously wanted governors to lead.
Instead, we get six downgrades in the past two years.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.