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National Editorial & Columnists

A job worth fighting for? Forget prestige and power, being Illinois governor is about problems

During the recent gubernatorial campaign, incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner fought hard to keep his job while eventual winner – Democrat J.B. Pritzker – worked just as hard to take it away.

Billionaire Pritzker outspent multimillionaire Rauner, investing $170 million-plus of his own money in the effort to take the reins of the state’s executive branch of government.

Campaigns are, of course, exciting, and the thrill of the competition can blind the participants. That’s why those at the edge of the political frenzy were not only watching with interest but wondering aloud why anyone would want to be, at least under current circumstances, the governor of Illinois.

Sure, the job comes with power, prestige, perks, patronage – all the things that make the heads of our state’s politicos swell with self-admiration.

But being governor of Illinois brings an even bigger “P’’ word – problems. They’re mostly financial problems. That’s because whatever Illinois tries to do – good or bad – takes money.

Illinois’ financial problems are acute, and, according to a recent report from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, they’re growing worse by the day.

It’s difficult, of course, to read the future. But the office is projecting that if current patterns in revenues and expenditures hold, state budgets will run deficits of roughly $3 billion for the next 5 years.

Deficit budgets are nothing new in Illinois. The Legislature hasn’t passed a balanced budget since the early 2000s, even though the Illinois Constitution requires that spending not exceed revenue.

State officials get around that legal requirement with a mixture of budget gimmicks that create a paper balance.

What happens when the state spends far more than it takes in year after year after year?

It doesn’t pay its bills. The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget estimates that by the 2024 fiscal year, Illinois’ unpaid bills will total $24 billion, more than half of that year’s estimated revenue of $41.5 billion.

Those numbers will either be aggravated or mitigated by the policies adopted by Pritzker and the Democrats who control the General Assembly.

These disturbing numbers come even in the face of the Legislature’s dramatic 32 percent state income tax increase. The new flat rate of 4.95 percent boosted state revenues by an estimated $5 billion.

That’s a lot of money. But even that sizable increase makes little difference if our elected officials are determined to spend even more.

The increase in unpaid bills is just one of the consequences of this state’s chronic financial mismanagement.

For those with the stomach for more bad news, Robert Posen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports investors in Illinois bonds are “sitting on time bombs” along with those who purchased bonds from Connecticut, New Jersey and Hawaii.

“Between 35 percent and 51 percent of their annual revenues are likely to be needed to meet their total annual payments on existing debt, retirement plans and retiree health care,” Posen wrote for Marketwatch.

Needless to say, devoting that huge percentage of revenues to state debt and retirement percentages will make it impossible to properly fund core state services.

None of this is, of course, set in stone. But the public officials who’ve charted this current course of fiscal disaster are living in a world with make-believe budget numbers.

Illinois must change. Will it? Can it? To this point, the answer is an emphatic no.

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