If you’ve got a wall, Susana Mendoza will write all over it for you.
“This is going to be, I think, by far perhaps the most challenging year that I’ve had to manage as comptroller,” Mendoza told Capitol News Illinois Wednesday. “You can pass whatever budget you want. If the revenues don’t come in the way you’d like them to, then there’s not enough money to go around for all of the priorities that are represented by that budget.”
Mendoza was around for the two-year budget impasse that defined Gov. Bruce Rauner’s tenure. Now Gov. JB Pritzker has seen the optimism of increased revenue undercut by an international health crisis that disrupted business models, caused surging unemployment and unpredictable consumer behavior and tax calculations.
Lasting solutions will only come from above. The federal government already has approved some COVID-19 relief funding, but all current health data indicates society won’t be normalized as quickly as some hoped, meaning another round of immediate aid is essential in order to buy time to craft sustainable policy.
“Illinois is not the only one who’s looking at this type of financial disaster situation,” Mendoza said. “Every single state in the country is going to require federal government sending financial aid. And when I say financial aid, I don’t mean loans. I mean specifically grants – money that does not have a million strings attached to it that would go specifically to help make up for lost revenues due to COVID-19.”
State government is a service provider, and some of those services can be scaled back during a pandemic. We’ve already gone through the worst of that – hopefully – in terms of losing access to state parks and recreational areas, driver services facilities and other offices needed to process the obligations of daily life. But it takes people to provide those services, and they need to get paid whether or not the office is open.
Tens of thousands of state workers are paid with tax dollars, but they also pay their own taxes: Property, income, sales and so on. Some argue state government shouldn’t be a jobs program. We have a warped view of what are considered “essential” public services and can’t justify continuing to pay retirement benefits negotiated in good faith long ago. Yet those families’ bills still are due.
Economic pressure magnifies the dangers of a crumbling foundation, but structural reform, no matter how necessary, doesn’t solve the immediate problem. People need financial security and access to health care.
“We are far from done with this pandemic,” Mendoza said. “So, if anybody believes that we’re even remotely out of the woods yet, they’re imagining things.”
Congress must help or the financial devastation will be overwhelming.
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.