What would happen to your family budget if you doubled your spending over a six-year period? I think we all know it would be an unsustainable and irresponsible path that leads to a lot of credit card debt and an eventual fiscal cliff. Yet that is exactly what your state government has done with the General Fund and other state and federal budget funds since Governor JB Pritzker took office. Between Fiscal Year 2018 and Fiscal Year 2024 (current year), state government appropriations have increased a staggering 95%. The part of the budget that affects everyday Illinoisans the most is the General Fund, and that fund alone has seen a 36% increase in appropriations since 2018.
These numbers come from a widely-respected and non-partisan panel called the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA). Republicans and Democrats alike consider data from COGFA to be trustworthy and accurate, and their latest figures show state and federal appropriations in Illinois grew from approximately $99 billion in 2018 to $193.5 billion for the current year. It is astounding.
Some of this increase in spending was made possible through tax increases and from one-time federal pandemic funds. The recent gas tax is a great example. The Legislature doubled the gas tax in 2019 to provide funds for the “Rebuild Illinois” transportation improvement program. This tax hike allowed for the capture of additional federal money, and as a result, transportation funds increased by 123.5% since the gas tax was passed.
I do not discount the need for reliable transportation infrastructure, but I believe there is a better way. Did we really need a gas tax with guaranteed yearly increases for Illinois motorists? Or could the Legislature have reprioritized existing budget dollars to meet those infrastructure maintenance and improvement needs? I voted against the gas tax and supported the reprioritization of spending. The Democrats could have reevaluated their spending priorities, but they chose not to.
Spending has skyrocketed in other budget areas as well. Just look at the free healthcare program for illegal immigrants, which year after year has blown cost projections out of the water. The Democratic Majority passed the Health Benefits for Immigrant Seniors program in 2020 to provide benefits to illegal immigrants aged 65 and older. The program eclipsed its $2 million 12-month appropriation in its first month, as Democrats grossly underestimated the number of people who would enroll.
Nonetheless, the Health Benefits for Immigrant Seniors program has since been incrementally expanded beyond just seniors. The cost for those aged 65+ in Fiscal Year 2021 was $67.3 million, and when it was expanded to cover those aged 55+ in Fiscal Year 2022, the cost exploded to $188 million. And when the program was expanded again in Fiscal Year 2023 to cover those aged 42+, the cost jumped to $690 million. Just $550 million was appropriated for this top-notch healthcare program in the current budget, despite original projections for this year’s program being estimated at $1.1 billion.
Another example of runaway spending is the recently approved AFSCME union contract, which extends approximately 18% raises over the next four years to roughly 35,000 state workers and gives them each an additional $1,200 stipend for ratifying the contract. These generous pay raises will hit taxpayers with an estimated new budget cost of $625 million over the next four years.
Attempts to rein in state and federal spending in Illinois have been summarily rejected by those who control the flow of bills and treat taxpayer resources like Monopoly Money. In 2020, Senate Bill 3008 was filed and would require legislators to only pass spending plans that taxpayers could afford. The bill, which was surprisingly filed by a Democrat, was not allowed a hearing, or given any opportunity for an up or down vote, which would have amended state law to ensure a budget’s General Fund appropriation would not exceed the growth reflected in median household incomes in the state.
One day soon, Illinois will hit the fiscal cliff. With federal funds from COVID-19 now dried up and taxpayers who already pay some of the highest taxes in the nation, something has got to give. The Majority Party will have to examine their spending habits and recognize the need for restraint and fiscal responsibility. For those Democrats who acknowledge the need for change in spending habits, I stand ready to work collaboratively on a bi-partisan solution.