Guest Column: Additional revenue can be used to invest in Illinois’ children
This week, Gov. Bruce Rauner will deliver his 2017 State of the State address to legislators. I liken the state to a large boulder shoved down a hill several years ago that has been gaining steam with each successive year on its downward descent.
Unpaid bills? At the end of 2015, the amount stood at $6.6 billion. As of Dec. 31, 2016, it was $10.9 billion. If the state does nothing to change the status quo that backlog could be $13.5 billion by the end of this June and $20.7 billion by the end of June 2018.
The unfunded liability for our pension systems stands at approximately $130 billion. In Fiscal Year 2009, the liability stood at $77.8 billion. At the moment, the state is scheduled to contribute just under $7.9 billion in general funds to the pension systems for Fiscal Year 2018.
Court orders have helped keep state government open with payments to employees and mandated services. Yet, without the revenue to keep pace, our debt grows larger. Providers wait longer for payments. The boulder keeps gaining speed. In doing so, it kicks up more dirt. Those dirt particles you might see are Illinois residents getting kicked out of shelters, denied mental health counseling, told there aren’t any more college grants, or forced to see their choice university no longer offers the program for their major.
We could slow its speed by taking in additional revenue. That’s always a difficult vote for some. Yet, there is something different this time. Somehow a narrative of using human services as a wedge to divide politicians has been translated into the belief that standing up for children, the poor and seniors is a sign of weakness. I happen to believe it is a sign of strength.
Our Illinois communities are not built on tax rates. They are built on the diverse array of citizens from all walks of life and of all races and ethnicities who strengthen the social fabric of those communities. With the necessary human services delivered, many of our state’s citizens are more independent and more productive. The human service programs actually help the state save money. The investment in a young child’s health, education and welfare keeps us from potentially seeing the need for more costly measures as that child grows older.
Let’s also not forget the economic value those human services bring in terms of jobs and spending. A report from Illinois Partners for Human Service last year stated human service providers spend $4.5 billion a year in Illinois, generating $597 million in state and local taxes. Every one of those dollars is a dollar that can be used for vital human services or payment of a back bill. It’s a dollar that helps slow the speeding boulder.
As noted, there’s a need for more revenue and, hopefully, in the form of a fairer tax system. Even under a flat tax system, the state can help with the economic prosperity of low-income families by increasing the state’s earned income tax credit. A measure that pulls many families out of poverty, research shows many EITC beneficiaries use the amount simply for necessities such as home repairs or to maintain vehicles used to get to work.
After 18 months without a complete state budget, Senate leaders have put the outlines of a package on the table to break the stalemate. As gray as things look now, perhaps there is some sunshine on the horizon. Let’s hope so. If not, that boulder’s momentum will bring things to a crashing halt that will alter this state forever … and not in a good way.
– Tasha Green Cruzat is president for Voices for Illinois Children, an independent advocacy organization that champions strong public policies and investments for all children in Illinois.