The Trouble with TABORs

The Illinois Constitution requires that the Governor present a balanced budget to the General Assembly each year and that the legislature adopt a budget that’s also balanced.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Unfortunately, Illinois has defied that tradition by approving a series of budgets that were technically “balanced” but in reality paved the way toward racking up a record-setting $13 billion-plus deficit. Compounding this problem is the fact that the state has no solid fiscal blueprint for solving the current budget problem or for preventing another crisis from occurring.

This dilemma is sending some state lawmakers scurrying for another way to solve Illinois’ financial crisis.

The newest proposed fix (though it’s an idea that’s been batted around various states for years) is a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR—a craftily worded title that does little to explain the actual contents of the policy. In Illinois, this is being presented as a constitutional amendment that, if passed by both the House and Senate, would appear on the ballot in 2012. If approved by the voters, the amendment would go into effect by 2014.

Essentially, TABORs restrict increases in state spending. Expert opinion varies on whether TABORs in general have any positive impact on the economic stability of a state. The Illinois version has drawn opposition from both traditionally more liberal groups like unions and more conservative groups like the Illinois Policy Institute.

Illinois’ Speaker of the House, Mike Madigan, who personally ushered the measure through committee in Springfield this week, says the measure will restrict state spending by tying any increases to the average annual percent change in per capita personal income, as reported by the US Department of Commerce. Any variation in that amount would have to be presented by the Governor for agreement to the Comptroller and the Treasurer, to be followed by “yes” vote of three-fifths of the General Assembly.

Basically, the idea is that rising and falling revenue from personal incomes taxes should match rising and falling levels of state spending. If the state doesn’t have the money coming in from taxes, it can’t spend the money.

Sounds a lot like the balanced budget our Illinois Constitution already requires, doesn’t it?

According to the Capitol Fax Blog, legislators have indicated their support for the measure because of their past inability to rein in spending.

Holding the line on unneeded spending is a fine idea. So fine, in fact, that it’s part of lawmakers’ constitutionally mandated job description.

Rather than coming up with new spending restrictions that wouldn’t even take effect until 2014, lawmakers would probably be serving the public more responsibly by focusing on ways to efficiently fund essential services while also cutting waste and excess.

Tough and politically unpopular choices have to be made. Our state constitution already requires it.

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Filed under Fiscal Reform, Legislative Update

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