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Illinois Is Uniquely Ill-Equipped to Pay for Coronavirus

Years of financial mismanagement have left $58,738 in our rainy-day fund and less than $2 billion saved for unemployment.

Governor J.B. Pritzker   Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Here’s a figure you need to know: $58,735.19.

That’s the amount of money in Illinois’s rainy-day fund, a savings account meant to tide the state over during times of low revenue, like the one we’re experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a spokesman for Comptroller Susana Mendoza, $58,735.19 is “not enough to run state government for 30 seconds.”

Almost every state has a rainy-day fund, but only Kansas, whose coffers are completely empty, has put aside less than Illinois. At the start of 2020, California had $19.2 billion, enough to keep the state running for a month and a half. Alaska had $2.2 billion, which could run that small state for six months.

Illinois used to have $275 million in its rainy-day fund, but that money was depleted to pay bills during the two-year budget standoff between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly. In February, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a plan to add $50 million to the fund this year, and another $50 million next year, if his Fair Tax Amendment passes in November. But now, COVID-19 is likely to claim those funds instead.

Decades of fiscal mismanagement have left Illinois with the lowest credit rating in the nation. Financially, we’re less prepared than any other state for COVID-19, and it’s wrecking efforts to get our money back in order.

Here’s another figure you need to know, especially if you’ve just been laid off from your job: $1,946,242,074. That was the amount of money in Illinois’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which it uses to fill unemployment claims, as of January 1.

Two billion dollars may sound like a lot of money, but according to this report by the Department of Labor, on a scale of 0.0 to 2.5, our fund’s solvency level is 0.42. Only three states — California, New York, and Texas — are more deeply in the red.

Illinois doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills, or to pay the 300,000 unemployment claims that have been filed since March 21. To make matters worse, there’s no money coming in: The state income tax deadline has been pushed back to July 15, and we won’t be collecting much in sales taxes or during the stay-at-home order. Most people are only buying groceries, which aren’t taxed. Gas taxes are lower, thanks to an OPEC price war and decreased driving, and anyway, a recent constitutional amendment reserves that money for road repairs.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Illinois managed to cut its backlog of unpaid bills from $16.7 billion to $7 billion. But now Mendoza is warning vendors not to expect their money right away.

“Due to the severity of this impact, and the significant additional challenges it poses to the state’s finances, further payment delays are to be expected in the coming weeks and months,” the comptroller said in a statement last week. “The most immediate priority today, and in the coming weeks, will be emergency funding for critical medical equipment and services necessary to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus on the front lines.”

Mendoza favored a bill to start replenishing the state’s rainy-day fund once its backlog of unpaid debts fell beneath $3 billion dollars. It passed a Senate committee in February, but looks like a pipe dream now, since our unpaid balance will climb back up again during the COVID-19 crisis.

So how are we going to get through this time when people need government more than ever, but government has less money than ever? We’re going to borrow and beg. The comptroller’s office is already employing “inter-fund borrowing,” in which it takes unused money from other state funds to finance hospitals. In March, the comptroller borrowed $105 million, which will have to be paid back with interest, and expects to borrow more in April. Meanwhile, the governor is asking for a federal bailout to pay unemployment claims.

Asked at one of his daily press briefings whether the state’s unemployment fund will remain solvent, Pritzker responded, “The answer is ‘no,’ but fortunately, the federal government in the latest stimulus package provided a significant amount of funding for unemployment.”

A significant amount, sure, but still not enough: “We’re going to have to see another relief package,” he continued, “because not only is there an unemployment problem – which hopefully it will only be four months or so long – but there’s also a challenge to all of our city budgets and state budgets and it goes beyond what was provided in the federal stimulus that was passed just recently.”

On Monday, Pritzker asked again for federal help, declaring that Illinois’s fiscal distress is “unprecedented in terms of the state even compared to 2008 to 2009, the revenue shortfall, the things that we’re having to do to address this, you know is creating a gap that I don’t think anybody could have anticipated.”

It’s not all Pritzker’s fault — and maybe we couldn’t have anticipated this — but we could have been better prepared. Every other state was.

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