A rough budget season in Springfield hurts important programs


The spring session of the Illinois General Assembly saw some winners—and some losers. I’ll write about the winners another time. This report focuses on the people who depend upon the state for help and for services but who found themselves with the short end of the stick this year.

The state of the state treasury required significant cuts in important programs. Illinois owed $9 billion to schools, universities and other vendors when we started building the present budget. Add to that the state’s debt for unfunded pension liabilities, pegged at more than $80 million. Left unchecked, Medicaid expenses were expected to grow by nearly $3 billion in the current fiscal year.

The resulting budget is sound and balanced. But it is not pretty. I could have supported a modest increase in state revenues to help fill the budget hole. But there was no appetite among the majority of my colleagues for tax hikes.

The result is that virtually every program will have to find ways to cut costs. Public schools saw significant reductions and even our early childhood education programs were not spared the budget knife.
We covered a little more than half of the anticipated Medicaid shortfall through significant limits on reimbursement rates and cuts in eligibility. I sponsored an increase in the tobacco tax that, with a hospital bed tax, will bring in $800 million a year. Health analysts predict the tax hike will encourage many adults to stop smoking and discourage some 70,000 teenagers from starting. Finally, we captured additional federal reimbursements as we paid down old Medicaid bills.

The Medicaid cuts may not have destroyed the social safety net, but they certainly tore at its fabric. There will be limits on vision and dental care for adults; fewer families will qualify for state help in paying their health care bills. Real people will be hurt. But without the changes, the system was increasingly unsustainable. Without the cuts, the system faced collapse.

There is reason to hope that next year’s budget will not be so painful. Certainly part of the state’s fiscal crisis is attributable to the country’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Thus the reports of a national economic recovery, albeit a slow one, are encouraging. The stock market is doing well, and Illinois income tax receipts are up. When people are out of work, the state treasury takes a hit. Crafting next year’s budget is not likely to be a piece of cake. But working with more black ink than red will surely make for a kinder and gentler outcome.