A memo from the budget director for Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner's transition team doesn't contain anything really new.
But that doesn't mean the message isn't important.
“Sins of the past and dishonest state budgets,'' was the title of the Tim Nuding memorandum to Rauner. The document says Illinois faces the worst financial crisis in the nation —“a crisis caused not by the income tax rolling back, but by the sins of the past. Illinois’ massive budget hole is the direct result of previous governors and General Assemblies giving away benefits they knew the state couldn’t afford, deploying fundamentally dishonest budget practices and kicking the can down the road.''
Nuding outlined these practices he said deserve special mention:
Borrowing money and calling it revenue: Nuding points out in the current fiscal year budget and in previous budgets, money has been borrowed from other funds and counted as "revenue'' in the general fund. That violates the spirit of the Constitutional requirement for a balanced budget. Nuding estimated the cost of repaying that inter-fund borrowing is $650 million, adding past administrations also have used supplemental appropriations to skirt the balanced budget requirement of the Constitution.
Issuing bonds to make pension payments: This has occurred in previous years and the state owes $1.4 billion in repayments. The repayments will be on the books for another 18 years.
Giving away unaffordable benefits: Nuding says past legislatures have increased pension benefits while refusing to pay for them. He also criticizes past administrations for failing to address the issue, or kicking the can down the road.
“Illinois taxpayers, schoolchildren and those citizens who need critical state services are being strangled by these additional costs that were incurred because of their government's failure to make responsible financial decisions,'' Nuding concludes.
While little of this information is new, it's important for legislators, and taxpayers to realize the current status cannot continue. Illinois' financial mess was largely self-inflicted and it will take some pain to extricate the state from the problems that have been created.
It's a good bet the memo,which didn't offer any solutions, is part of the Rauner team's campaign to explain the budget problem and prepare citizens for what is expected to be a series of budget cuts and increased revenue initiatives to rectify the problem.
Rauner has been light on the specifics of how he will address the financial crisis, so it would be premature to draw any conclusions.
But acknowledging the mistakes of the past in such a public way appears to be a good first step.