State will ultimately pull through its budget woes, comptroller says

Scott Hilyard

At the end of his address to the Peoria South-West Kiwanis Club on Thursday, state Comptroller Dan Hynes said he was optimistic that Illinois would ultimately find the way out of its current and massive economic decline.

It was everything he said before then that might have made the lunch entree — meatloaf — difficult to digest.

The economy is bad, Hynes said at the beginning of his address, “and getting worse, not better.”

While not breaking much news about the depth of the budget deficit or the path toward fixing the mess, Hynes delivered a 45-minute state of the state’s woeful economy to the weekly Kiwanis lunchtime meeting in a banquet room at the Radisson Hotel on Western Avenue. So low has the economy sunk, Hynes needed two adjectives to describe the state’s finances.

“Dismal AND bleak,” he said.

Hynes said the state faces a $9 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year and a current $6 billion backlog of unpaid bills that is delaying, by months in some cases, payment to health care providers, social service agencies, small businesses and others that contract with the state. Those payment delays jeopardize service providers that need to pay their own bills and make their own payrolls, Hynes said. And that deepens the economic distress.

Hynes was short on solutions, saying the picture should become clearer next week with the delivery of Gov. Pat Quinn’s first proposed budget following the impeachment and ouster of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. It should become clearer still after the April 15 tax deadline, when the state will begin to learn how much it has raised through the state income tax.

“They hear a $9 billion deficit and the press always asks ‘You’re going to need to raise taxes, right?’ Raising taxes should not be our first instinct,” Hynes said.

He did not elaborate.

Hynes said nobody foresaw the state’s fiscal decline converging with a national, and global, economic collapse, but he did see troubling signs in past years. He has been comptroller for 10 years.

“There were disturbing trends (in state government) like revenues rising and an excessive zeal for spending,” he said. “We warned then that a day of reckoning was coming, that we were one financial disaster away from state government teetering toward collapse.”

Hynes then tried to wrap an optimistic ribbon around his pessimistic address. He said Quinn seems to have brought a new, more cooperative attitude to Springfield.

“We will get through this,” he said. “I’m proud of the leadership coming out of Washington right now. And I do think America has a story of seizing opportunities and getting up off the ground when knocked down and dealing with our setbacks. But right now (the state is in an economic situation) that’s making even astute experts scratch their heads.”

Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or atshilyard@pjstar.com.