How Illinois created devastating service cuts, and a huge deficit, without a budget

For many people, Illinois’ ongoing fiscal crisis has been a disaster: College students have had to leave school because of missing scholarship money; rape crisis centers have been pushed to the brink of closing; programs to treat meth addiction in children have been canceled; and countless other hardships.

But for some, enough basic services have continued that it raises a question: How can the state continue to function at all if it spent an entire year without a budget?

Well, last week, we released our report on Illinois’ spending for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, which ended on June 30, 2016. The report explains both how there wasn’t a government shutdown, as well as why the so-called “autopilot” spending wreaked havoc both on crucial services and the state’s fiscal health.

First, back up a bit: in order to spend money on anything from college grants to police training, the state needs legal permission. In large part, that’s what a budget is — permission to spend money.

But in FY2016, instead of a full budget, the General Assembly and Governor could only agree on four different bills that authorized (or “appropriated”) $7.1 billion in spending on services — compared to the $24.5 billion that was spent in FY2015.

But a budget isn’t the only way to get legal permission to spend. Another $14.4 billion was authorized by court orders (which are what they sound like) and consent decrees (which are agreements between the state and another party, supervised by a court). This — plus “continuing appropriations,” which is permission to spend money granted by laws passed in previous years — is the “autopilot” spending that kept many state services going.

So what’s the problem? Well, three things.

First, autopilot spending isn’t based on an assessment of the needs of state residents in a given year: It’s just made up of whatever a court can compel based on existing legal commitments. That means it’s missing a lot, including all the crucial services mentioned at the top of this post. In fact, authorized spending on Human Services in FY2016 was down $576 million, or 11 percent, from the year before; spending on Public Safety was down 5.5 percent, and Healthcare was down nearly 12 percent. It’s hard to believe that any reasonable assessment of Illinoisans’ needs would have suggested those kinds of cuts.

Second, autopilot spending can make those kind of devastating cuts without any elected official having to endorse them. With a normal budget, people can hold their representatives accountable for having voted in favor of spending cuts. But no one had to vote in favor of these cuts — they just happened.

And finally, because state officials don’t have to vote in favor of autopilot spending, they also don’t have to balance it with revenue, or publicly justify running deficits if they fail to do so. That’s how, in FY2016, Illinois could make devastating cuts to everything from scholarships to meth treatment, and still end the year with a $9.4 billion deficit — one that not a single elected official had to endorse.

Read more in the full report.

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