Race to the Bottom

Recently I traveled over 3,500 miles to learn something I already knew. When it comes to gauging state budget disasters, Illinois may not be as bad as California — arguably the worst in the nation — but we are getting closer all the time.

I was an out-of-state guest at a conference of faith leaders convening in Los Angeles to discuss “California — Still Leading the Nation, but Leading in the Wrong Direction.”

Using the measures that were put forward, Illinois belongs right at the head of the pack.

California now ranks 45th in the nation in spending only about $8,800 per pupil on K-12 education. Illinois spends more per pupil, but only because of our heavy reliance on the property tax. We rank 49th in the amount of school funding provided by state revenues.

Because of our property tax reliance, we have the most inequitable education funding system in the country, with per pupil spending ranging from a high of almost $23,700 to a low of less than $4,500.

California used to provide broad access to a fine system of higher education. This is no longer the case: student fees today account for 45% of all public university system revenue compared to just 2% in 1976. But the same thing has long been happening in Illinois: since 1970, state support to the University of Illinois and other institutions has dropped from almost $13 per tuition dollar to $1 per tuition dollar in 2009.

The welfare program, CalWORKs, has not kept pace with inflation: in order to have the same purchasing power that it had in 1990, the grant would need to be roughly twice what it actually is now. This year the CalWORKs grant for a family of three will be reduced from $684 to $585. But consider Illinois, where a family of three receives a monthly Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grant of $432, only 28% of the Federal Poverty Level. (The grant covered 79% of poverty back in 1973.)

California’s new budget slashes AIDS-related services, domestic violence programs, adolescent family life services, and the Black Infant Health program. The budget just signed by Governor Quinn reduces the Department of Human Services budget by $312 million, over two-thirds of the cuts coming from mental health for those not eligible for Medicaid. It extends the payment cycles for agencies that serve the developmentally disabled. For some, this most likely means “Go Out of Business.”

These cuts further decimate a human services budget that already was underfunded ten years ago, when Illinois ranked 35th in the nation in support of mental health and developmental disability services. Since 2002 these services have been reduced by an annual average of $385 million in real terms.

Even with these and other cuts, Illinois’ budget for 2011 is still at least $12 billion (50% of total general revenue) out of balance in the absence of a tax increase, something that does not seem likely in the current political climate. And it is based on nearly $900 million of cuts as yet unspecified.

So, yes, there are reasons to think that we rival California when it comes to inhumane public policy. And in some ways, we are worse. Our state has simply decided not to pay its bills, leaving service agencies and health providers to twist in the wind. That’s illegal in California.

When it comes to the question of “broken government,” there is one respect in which California is indisputably Number One. It is unique among the states in requiring two-thirds “supermajorities” in order for state legislators to enact budgets and raise taxes. In addition, Californians have long had the power through local citizens’ initiatives, most famously Proposition 13 in 1978, to tie the hands of state legislators seeking to address state fiscal problems.

So in this respect, California is “Leading in the Wrong Direction.” They have placed themselves in a political and legislative straight jacket.

What’s our excuse?

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