Starting this week, a diverse group of Illinoisans is marching 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield to demand a state budget that puts the people and the planet first. This march is most obviously a reaction to the current budget crisis that began on July 1, 2015. However, it’s part of a much longer struggle over the revenues and investments we chose to make in the state, and it affirms our need for a transformative, sustainable agenda for a better Illinois.
Starting in the 1990s, Illinois started spending more money than it took in. The main cause was an increase in pension payments. As more state workers retired, they started drawing more money out of the pension system than workers were contributing. Rich Miller painted a general picture of the pension problems in Crain’s, but the take away was this: state leaders have failed to fully fund the pension system for years, digging us into an ever deepening pit of debt.
In 2008, housing prices tanked and hit Illinois where it really hurt: property taxes, which make up a large portion of the state’s revenue. This made an already gaping deficit even more dramatic.
To help fill the gap, lawmakers passed an income tax increase in 2011. But there were two problems. First, it was set to last only until 2015. Second, it was still a flat rate. Illinois’ Constitution does not allow for graduated tax brackets, meaning that everyone (from those in deep poverty to multi-millionaires) is required to pay the same percent of their income in taxes. Only 8 states have a flat tax; the rest have progressive tax brackets like the Federal Government. A progressive income tax could generate much more revenue by asking more of those who can afford to pay more, but that’s illegal in Illinois.
When Governor Rauner took office in 2015, he and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly let the income tax increase expire. Governor Rauner came into office demanding changes to workers’ compensation laws, a freeze on property taxes, collective bargaining changes, and other reforms before he would agree to discuss the state budget. Democrats argued that this was an attack on workers and the middle class, and refused to make concessions. The two sides agree on almost nothing, and can accomplish very little without working together. Governor Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan rarely speak to one another, and there is no reason to believe a budget will be passed before the next elections in 2018.
While failing to fund the pension systems, Illinois leaders also have a bad habit of letting unpaid bills pile up. Currently, Illinois has about $12.3 billion of unpaid bills. Debts of this scale come with tremendous interest costs, not to mention the damage done by Illinois’ downgraded credit. But it’s important to remember that this is a new stage in an ongoing crisis—not a new crisis altogether. In the 10 years before July 1, 2015, Illinois paid out $1 billion in interest on past due bills.
The March to Springfield for a People and Planet First Budget has been decades in the making. We hope that as marchers stop for listening events in communities along the march route, regular Illinoisans will engage in healthy conversation about what we want in our budget and in our state. We suspect there will be more that brings us together than that divides us.
When crisis is the norm, our only option is to build an affirmative agenda for a radically transformed state. Getting back to the status quo of 5, 10, or 20 years ago won’t help us avoid the challenges we’re facing now. Before Rauner took office, Democratic leaders were slashing funding for critical social services and kicking the pension can down the road. Short-term solutions no longer mean anything. The time for tinkering is over. That’s why we’re part of the #MarchToSpringfield.