Treasurer Dan Rutherford is right to sound the alarm about the state’s indebtedness, even if it takes warning Wall Street not to loan money to Illinois.
Gov. Pat Quinn said Friday that if he were Rutherford, “I’d watch my language.”
Quinn — and the state — would be better off if the governor watched the state’s burgeoning debt, instead.
The state cannot afford to borrow more money. It is as simple — and complex — as that.
Rutherford breaks it down this way:
Illinois taxpayers’ debt from borrowing is $45 billion.
The total in unpaid bills is $8 billion.
The state’s unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities total $140 billion.
That comes to a debt of $42,000 per household in Illinois.
The problem didn’t happen overnight, but it certainly accelerated in the past decade. Rutherford notes that the state’s bond indebtedness was $12 billion in 2002; now it’s $45 billion.
In a position paper about the problem, Rutherford describes Illinois as “on the verge of financial disaster” and notes, “Illinois is spending almost $3 for every $2 it takes in. This cannot continue.”
He is right. And that is despite this year’s monster tax increase.
Borrowing won’t solve the state’s problems. It will only make them worse. Illinois already has the second worst bond rating in the country. At least one rating service says Illinois is worse than California, giving Illinois a “negative outlook” while California is considered “stable.”
It is hard to argue with that negative analysis when Quinn is talking about borrowing $8 billion more.
The state’s poor bond rating means the state has to pay more in interest when it sells bonds, compared to states with better financial habits.
In his report, Rutherford notes, “Illinois borrowed another $3.7 billion in April 2011 to partially fund a pension payment; because of the state’s low credit rating, taxpayers will have to repay $1.279 billion in interest; that dollar amount is 17 percent more than Kentucky, 34 percent more than Michigan and 41 percent more than Washington which all issued similar bonds this year.”
Rutherford is calling for freezing state spending and ending borrowing.
As treasurer, Rutherford has a say in short-term borrowing, but he cannot block long-term borrowing. However, the governor needs a three-fifths majority it both houses to approve his borrowing plan.
Rutherford said that by outlining the scope of the problem, “I bolstered the position” of state lawmakers who oppose more borrowing. And he intends to continue to keep shouting about it.
State officials, especially the governor, must listen.