Finance

Abdicating the Budget Role to the Governor

Legislators in many states this year, faced with huge budget shortfalls and difficult choices, must have been tempted to just sign off on any plan...
by | August 31, 2009

Legislators in many states this year, faced with huge budget shortfalls and difficult choices, must have been tempted to just sign off on any plan put forward by the governor, letting him or her take the political heat for spending cuts. But only in Illinois did they actually give in to this temptation.

Illinois was facing a two-year deficit of $12 billion. Legislators refused to vote for higher taxes. So, despite billions in borrowing and deferred payments to vendors that totaled $4 billion, the budget enacted this summer was still out of balance. Rather than agreeing to further spending cuts, the legislature simply left it up to Governor Pat Quinn to cut the last $1 billion.

Not every legislator was happy. Donne Trotter, the Senate appropriations chair, said the action made the governor "king of Illinois." But House Democratic leaders polled their caucus and found "general consensus" that it was better to leave it to the governor, according to state Representative John D'Amico.

The budget problems in Illinois are certainly not unique, but they are particularly bad. Pension fund contributions have been neglected for 30 years, while overall state spending has continued to climb well above the rate of inflation. Given the huge shortfall, and a new governor willing to deal (Quinn replaced the impeached Rod Blagojevich in January), many had hoped that legislators would finally take a hard look at what levels of service the state could afford to provide, and how it would pay for them.

Instead, legislators opted to punt their problems into next year, while leaving the few serious choices to the governor's discretion entirely. "When all is said and done," says Southern Illinois University political scientist John Jackson, "they threw up their hands. They walked away."

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