Budget details obscured
As the State Integrity Investigation went to press, the state was more than four months into a new fiscal year — which began on July 1 — and still had no budget in sight.
Yet buses were still running, the department of motor vehicles remained open and a majority of the bills were being paid.
“Right now, we are in an Alice-In-Wonderland kind of world, because to me, the government continues to operate despite the fact that there is no budget,” said David Merriman, co-director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs’ Fiscal Futures Project, which models the Illinois state budget.
Merriman’s group, the Fiscal Futures Project, is a government watchdog group focused on state budget transparency and long-term budget concerns.
To calculate the state’s true spending can take a year, he said, after tracking movement between budgets and funds over time.
“In an absolute sense, the budget is terribly difficult to understand and not very transparent,” Merriman said.
Not surprisingly, Illinois got an F in the category grading budget processes, earning the fourth worst score in the nation. Part of the problem is that a hefty share of the spending takes place outside of the state’s general fund, for example through special funds.
Even today, many of the state’s bills and obligations — such as to union workers — are being paid under a court order versus an appropriations bill as legislators grapple with a formalized spending plan.
Merriman said national research shows that during periods of fiscal stress, lawmakers will move money between the state’s general fund and special funds, which makes it harder to track spending.
And, he said, “Illinois has been in periods of fiscal stress for a long time.”
This makes it much harder for someone else — such as John Q. Public who doesn’t study the state budget for a living, or even legislators — to understand it.
But there is a movement to make the state budget more understandable and uniform in how it is reported, he said. “And we’re not there yet.”