"Smoke and mirrors" has been the traditional method for the Illinois state budget. In a state whose governing capability and quality of governing is nationally viewed as ridiculous, a budget full of imagined numbers and absurd expectations is as commonplace as cheese toasties on a chilly day.
The overwhelming rejection of the graduated income tax by voters in November made it clear that Gov. J.B. Pritzker's path to Springfield was paved not with embraces of his budgetary plans but with dislike and rejection of Bruce Rauner. Pritzker hung his optimism about the passage of the tax amendment. Instead, he was smacked by the double-whammy of its failure and the fallout of a pandemic.
So it's somewhat surprising the budget does not feel as though it was written by someone at the helm of a sinking ship. There's scant room for optimism, but there's also not much evidence of panic.
Last year, the Pritzker administration said the failure of the amendment would lead to a hike for all taxpayers or across-the-board reductions of up to 20%. Instead, with delaying a few promises and shuffling money between programs, on paper, what was projected in November to be a $2.6 billion deficit in fiscal 2022 has become a $122 million surplus.
Of course, that kind of trickery is correctly going to be received negatively by opponents and critics. Some omissions are troubling. House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (Western Springs) says Pritzker has backed away from an agreement the two made about corporate tax breaks to spur economic growth. The celebrated $350 million annual boost pledged in a 2017 school-funding overhaul is on hold.
But critics of Pritzker's proposal are rejecting his idea of planning on federal aid.
Arguing against the federal government sending Illinois billions of dollars in pandemic relief aid is baffling. To what end? The state won't get style points or extra credit for rejecting federal funds.
The argument is one similar to that used by people critical of a tax expense they disagree with. Downstaters regularly complain about state money being spent in their backyards in ways they see as superfluous. As though the money would be better spent someplace else in the state. The tax dollars from Cerro Gordo spend just the same as those from Chicago.
Why would the state reject federal funds, or consider not taking them because Illinois hasn't been as tidy with its budget as it should have been? Illinois sends more money to Washington than it gets back. If relief is coming from the federal government, Illinois deserves its place in line as well as everyone else. If the feds don't come through, Illinois will not be the only state in trouble.
Finally, like it or not, Pritzker's visuals to go with the speech -- standing in a state fairgrounds building while workers behind him disinfected the area for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations -- were a solemn and effective reminder of where we've been in the last 12 months