Eye On Illinois: Good financial news a small part of bigger picture

It’s not a common sentiment, but there seems to actually be some decent news regarding state finances.

Speaking Friday during a Southern Illinois University Paul Simon Public Policy Institute event (tinyurl.com/MendozaTalk), Comptroller Susana Mendoza said Illinois’ bill backlog is down to $3.5 billion. That such a staggering figure could be considered favorable is a testament to how bad things have been for many years.

When Mendoza first took office in December 2016, the backlog was a mind-blowing $17 billion. Knocking about 80% off that monumental logjam in such relatively short order is nothing short of commendable. At the moment, Illinois can now pay vendors within a legally required 30-day window, which hasn’t been possible for almost 20 years.

“The last time that we were this current on paying our bills was just before Sept. 11, 2001,” Mendoza said.

Of course, this data point is just one component of a complex financial equation, and we’ve no shortage of reasons to remain concerned about the long-term outlook. Credit rating agencies are at best cautiously optimistic about Illinois. Republicans are convinced the hastily adopted $42.3 billion state budget doesn’t do anything to improve conditions. The unemployment trust fund is running a $5 billion deficit. Exelon is still pushing for a multimillion-dollar bailout. Sales and gas taxes and other fees already are high after recent increases. Local governments levy steep property taxes to cover what state lawmakers won’t. The unfunded pension crisis remains in need of a practical solution.

“There is a structural deficit, which means that in any given year, I’m just trying to meet the core obligations of the state – things like K-12 spending, Medicaid, all of our health care payments, public safety, human resources – all of those basic things. Even with all of that, we don’t have enough revenue coming in on a year-to-year basis to cover just the most basic expenses.”

Count Mendoza among those who would solve that issue by changing the income tax structure, a proposal voters soundly rejected in November 2020. It wouldn’t seem politically prudent to put the same question on the 2022 ballot – Republicans already will make that election a referendum on Gov. JB Pritzker’s first term, so why would he want such a handy reminder of his biggest failure? – so the earliest a change could come would seem to be 2024.

The bill backlog could grow smaller in those three years, although even if that ends up playing out, we’ll still be facing myriad other challenges. Education funding is supposed to increase annually. Federal pandemic relief funds are temporary. Infrastructure maintenance never gets less expensive. Pensions pensions pensions.

It’s OK to celebrate the little victories, but the road to real recovery remains an arduous journey.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.