A Taxpayer Subsidized Birthday Party, Next Week’s Budget Address and Why I Care So Much About Fixing DCFS

I know it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the idea of a $50 billion budget or $140 billion of unfunded pension liabilities. But here’s something I think most of us can wrap our heads around, something that points out that even the small things that government does come out of your pocket.

Last week we were in session from Tuesday through Thursday. On Thursday we were in session for a total of 24 minutes and 51 seconds. During that time we had eight points of personal privilege which ran the gamut from welcoming constituents to Springfield, celebrating Lunar New Year and congratulating a staff member on the birth of her child. There were no committee meetings nor was any other substantive business conducted. Yet, ninety-eight members were present on Thursday when the bell rang calling session into order.

And why was it necessary to have session on Thursday? It was necessary because had we adjourned for the week on Wednesday, everyone would have left town, and no one would have been left in Springfield to go to the Speaker’s birthday party on Wednesday night. That’s right, the Speaker had a birthday party on Wednesday night and lest any of the revelers try to drive home late that night, we had session on Thursday. And here’s why that matters. Members of the General Assembly are paid per diem of $166 for every day that we are in session. Ninety-eight members signing in on Thursday at $166 per cost the taxpayers of Illinois $16,268. You paid that much for a birthday party you weren’t even invited to.

Hot Topic of the Week:

2024 Budget Address is Coming Up

Before we get to the next fiscal year, let’s review last year’s results. Last year the Governor signed a budget that provided for a $162 million surplus, thus allowing him to crow about having passed yet another “balanced” budget”. I think it’s important that we first look at several of the more big-ticket items that threw his calculations completely out the window: 

  • Migrant Health Care: The first topic that became a political hot potato last year was providing free healthcare for undocumented immigrants. The program had a projected cost of roughly $1.2 billion for FY 23, but the budget “only” appropriated $550 million. Since then (and remember that this fiscal year doesn’t end until June), we’ve spent some $760 million.
  • Migrant Crisis: Raise your hand if you knew that the Governor has issued 18 consecutive disaster declarations since September of 2022 dealing with the migrant crisis here in Illinois, giving him broad authority to spend money and rewrite contracts dealing with the massive influx of people who’ve found their way to Illinois over the past 2 years. Where the $478 million spent so far on this has come from is anyone’s guess, because it certainly wasn’t provided for in last year’s budget.
  • Pensions: A recent report by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability discloses that Illinois has nearly $141 billion dollars in unfunded pension liabilities, up from $130 billion just a few years ago. The report states that the debt has “stabilized,” which is mostly due to the fact that since 2014 all new state workers are in Tier 2 (a different looming problem, as we have previously discussed). The Governor will take a victory lap for having “stabilized” the pension debt and having put an additional $200 million that he found between the couch cushions into the pension system, but the last time I checked, $141 billion is more than $130 billion, so I don’t know how “stable” the system is. This is still an enormous liability that’s being left to future generations to pay off. All the while, Illinois’ credit rating remains one of the worst in the nation, making it more expensive for the state to borrow money.

Next week Governor Pritzker will present yet another State of the State and Budget Address where he will lay out his policy and spending plans for the next year. This address is a made for television affair and should be viewed primarily as political messaging intended for campaign ads, short news clips, and nods to the Governor’s allies. It will be light on details and rich with rhetoric.

While I understand that a budget is an imprecise and aspirational document, it offers insight into the thought process of a majority party that’s hell-bent on spending as much of your money as it possibly can. For the past four years we’ve been swimming in Federal COVID money, but next year is expected to be different. By that I mean the Federal money has gone away and there won’t be any more. As a result, it’s estimated that Illinois is staring at an $891 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2025, which begins on July 1st of this year.

Like me, I know that you’re anxiously waiting to find out how the Governor plans to plug that budget gap while giving his party everything it wants for their pet projects. Especially since we’re in an election year, because we all know that the best way to get votes is to promise anything and everything while having no idea of how to pay for it. I’d like to focus on just one item: K-12 education.

From a Capitol News Illinois story:

“[Illinois State Board of Education CFO Matt Seaton] said there were also some new categories of funding requests this year, including requests to replace a stream of temporary Federal funding that is about to be discontinued. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER funding, helped cover some extraordinary expenses schools incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, according to ISBE data, nearly $7.8 billion of ESSER funding has come to Illinois since March, 2020, but nearly all of that went directly to school districts. 

Of that money, about $5.3 billion has been spent, with more than a third – $1.8 billion – going toward salaries, $1 billion going toward purchased services such as outside contracts, and $681 million for supplies and materials.

That funding stream will end in September 2024, which will leave many districts facing some tough budget choices heading into the 2024-2025 academic year.”

One thing puzzles me about that. As we all know most of K-12 educational costs are paid for with local property taxes. During the pandemic, I don’t recall my property taxes going down, including that portion used to pay for public schools. Did yours? We certainly didn’t spend any less money out of the state budget for education; in fact, we increased it by $350 million per year. And this at a time when enrollment in Illinois’ public schools has declined 7.5% between 2018 and 2022.

I realize that there were certain extraordinary costs to school districts associated with the pandemic (like the $23 million of laptops “missing” from the Chicago Public Schools), but $5.3 billion? And if “only” 1/3 of that went toward salaries, purchased services and materials, where did the rest of it go? And why does it need to be replaced? The pandemic is over.

The story goes on to say that “the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget issued its latest five-year revenue projections a $1.4 billion upward revision to the revenue estimate for the current fiscal year, bringing the total estimate for this year to just over $52 billion, but that the bump in revenue could be largely offset by $1 billion in additional spending needs this year.”

I’m certainly curious to see what that $1 billion in additional spending needs consists of. Aren’t you? Tune in next Wednesday at noon to find out.

Capitol Crimes: A New Podcast from House Republicans  Behind many efforts for changes in state law are interesting stories that are sometimes horrifying and sometimes tales of when the law failed Illinoisans. In a new podcast from the Illinois House Republican Caucus, we will highlight the real story behind the legislation.

In the latest episode, you’ll hear about an issue that is close to my heart: fixing our broken child welfare system. Unfortunately, there are too many horrifying stories of children throughout Illinois who have been let down by this system. Listen in to this 17-minute episode to hear the story behind our efforts to fix this broken system. 

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