By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD – Illinois’ economy is growing – by just enough to pay the state’s skyrocketing pension tab.
Both Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s office and the legislature’s economic forecasting panel told lawmakers late Tuesday they expect about $1 billion in new tax dollars for the next budget.
But State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, is squashing any hopes that Illinois has “new money” to spend.
“I don’t want anybody to think the state of Illinois has a bunch of money, it doesn’t,” Bradley said.
Bradley and his House Revenue Committee are trying to pin down a dollar amount for the legislature’s spending cap. Lawmakers have set a hard cap for the past few years, then forced Quinn to live with the budget lawmakers write.
The current budget cap is $33.7 billion. Both the governor’s office and the legislature’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability talked Tuesday of revenues just over $35 billion.
But Bradley said pension costs alone will eat up any growth in state money. Illinois’ pension payment is set to increase $1 billion in the new budget.
“The state is still upside down, there is more work to be done. Maybe we’ll have enough breathing room to make the pension payment for another year. But that’s all I can say on that,” Bradley said.
In addition to the increased pension payment, Illinois will face as much as $9 billion in unpaid bills, hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid employee health care bills, and pressure to increase spending on education and human services.
The potential billion dollars in revenue growth comes with a warning.
Dan Long, COGFA’s executive director, said Illinois still faces “roadblocks” to economic growth.
“We are slow to rebound,” Long told Bradley’s committee on Tuesday. “Illinois is not recovering as quickly as many other states or as the country as a whole.”
Long also warned about increasing state spending ahead of the scheduled end to Illinois’ “temporary” tax increase.
In early 2011, Illinois lawmakers raised the state’s 3 percent individual income tax rate to 5 percent. The 4.8 percent corporate tax rate jumped to 7 percent. But those rates will drop in 2014, individuals are supposed to see their tax rate fall to 3.75 percent, corporations are supposed to see their rate drop to 5.25 percent.
“That is our fiscal cliff,” Bradley said. “When the temporary tax increase starts to expire … it will have a $5 billion impact the first year.”
Bradley said he wants to keep state spending in check this year to “work the state into a position” to allow that tax increase to expire.
The spending estimates come ahead of Gov. Pat Quinn’s State of the State address Wednesday.
Bradley is quick to say the governor needs to look at the full picture, not just the $1 billion in expected new tax dollars.
“He needs to be straight with the people of Illinois,” Bradley said. “He needs to be straight in terms of where we’re at. Where he wants to go, and not play games with the numbers.”
Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected].