The new year has a lot in store for Illinois, with a new governor, the process of replacing late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and the prospect of more polar vortices. And 2015 brings a new set of challenges to the state. Many, many challenges.
Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek outlined a few:
1. Taxes and budgeting.
As we said, whether Rauner will be able to keep the income tax rate at 3.75 percent for long is perhaps the biggest question Illinoisans want answered. It won't be easy. Since his victory, Rauner repeatedly has warned the budget is a big mess. We knew last spring lawmakers passed a way-out-of -whack spending plan, borrowing from various funds to make it appear as if the budget were balanced. With the income tax rate drop, Rauner and lawmakers just lost about $2 billion in revenues this fiscal year and about $4 billion in the next full one. Rauner has said he's learned state department heads are seeking another $760 million just to get through the rest of the fiscal year which ends at the end of June. Rauner has talked, without much detail, of a complete tax overhaul. Whether he can balance the budget will go a long way in determining how credit rating agencies assess Illinois and how we're rated will determine what kind of interest rate we pay when the state borrows money. One last reminder: Illinois starts 2015 owing about $4.5 billion to people who already have provided services to Illinois and its citizens.
We're sure you're aware, Illinois has the worst pension crisis of all 50 states. Rauner recently was named by Institutional Investor, a financial trade publication, as the most powerful person in the nation when it comes to shaping pension policy. Perhaps the publication should have named the Illinois Supreme Court as the most powerful entity when it comes to shaping pension policy. As it now stands, that court later this year will have a huge say in how pensions may or may not be funded here. Rauner will have to respond after that and get control over a now $111 billion shortfall that threatens retirement security for teachers, state troopers, prison guards and plenty of other public service workers. Will Rauner move new state workers into a 401(k)-style plan as he has indicated he wants to do? Even if he does, that doesn't fund the $111 billion gap. What will he do to fix the single biggest drain on Illinois' ability to operate, get good credit, fund schools and social services, prisons and fix our roads, bridges and other infrastructure?
3. Schools and their funding.
Rauner pledged during the campaign to boost school funding as one of the most important things we can do to improve the future of Illinois and the lives of our children. But the devil is in the details and the details were lacking. State Sen. Andy Manar, a central Illinois Democrat, has a plan to revise the way schools get funded in Illinois, essentially taking money, over several years, from wealthier school districts and giving it to poorer ones, but Rauner said during the campaign the legislation needed more work. SB16, as it is known, would take money primarily from suburban districts and give it to downstate districts, a plan which has many suburban residents concerned. Rauner and his wife, Diana, for years have immersed themselves in education policy. Making a difference here likely is at the top of the soon-to-be governor's list of resolutions. It should also be on all Illinoisans. A better education and better-funded education is a basic birthright for every child that will mean each has a more productive adulthood, hopefully in Illinois.
Check out Reboot Illinois to see what other issues Illinois, its leaders and its citizens might have to face in the new year.
One challenge Scott Reeder believes Rauner may have headed off early is the question of state unity. Reeder says Rauner's decision to live in the governor's Executive Mansion in Springfield is a sign of good faith from the governor-elect. First, though, Rauner said he would fund some repairs to the building himself, because in its current state the building is unliveable. Read why Reeder thinks this all matters for state morale at Reboot Illinois.