For months you have been reading and hearing about our state budget impasse. It’s no surprise that most of the media coverage has focused on the lack of an overall agreement, and what specific programs and services are not being funded as a result.
What may surprise you to learn is that the vast majority of our state budget spending is continuing uninterrupted without an approved budget in place, and the General Assembly has very little actual control over most of it.
In a nutshell, every dollar the state spends falls into one of two categories:
• discretionary spending-funding we can choose to allocate or not at whatever level we decide
• non-discretionary spending-expenses we are obligated to pay at a pre-determined level
In other words, the non-discretionary spending continues with or without a budget, and most of our big expenses in Fiscal Year 2016 are non-discretionary, including more than $7 billion for pensions, $7 billion for Medicaid payments, $2 billion for payments on our state debt, and more than $4 billion for state employee salaries, among others.
Here’s the surprising part: When you tally up all of the non-discretionary spending that we have little or no control over, then add the $6.4 billion for education funding that the Governor signed into law, it comes to $31.3 billion that is being spent despite the fact that no state budget is in place.
So, since we’re expecting to bring in about $32.1 billion in revenue this fiscal year, the entire budget battle is really about how to spend approximately $1 billion that we will have remaining.
There’s no question that reforms will be necessary for us to continue to fund programs and services that are important to local families. That’s where the Governor’s Turnaround Agenda comes in.
But I think we also need to begin a conversation about the huge majority of state spending decisions that have been taken away from the General Assembly, and are instead being mandated by the federal government or by court order.
According to the Illinois Constitution, “…The General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State. Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year.”
That’s crystal clear. We, the members of the General Assembly, are to be responsible for putting together a balanced spending plan for the state. That’s hard to do when other branches and levels of government are forcing most of the spending decisions on us.