If the Illinois FY 2021 Enacted General Fund Budget proves anything, it is that no matter how much things change in the world at large, the structural revenue problems in the state’s budget remain the same. Consider that, not even accounting for the impact of COVID-19, Illinois would nonetheless still have a General Fund deficit—meaning the state would not have had enough current revenue to cover some spending on public services this year—even if the pandemic never happened.
Despite the poor performance of the state’s revenue system over time, many commentators and editorial boards still try to blame the state’s historic, recurring deficit problems on overspending for services. The data, however, have simply never supported that canard, which is explained at length in this Report. The long-term structural deficit in Illinois’ General Fund—which will certainly become worse over the next few years as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy is projected to drive revenue down significantly in all 50 states—is a real cause for concern.
A structural deficit like the one in Illinois’ General Fund, which is demonstrably driven by an underperforming revenue system, cannot be eliminated without raising taxes. In fact, Governor Pritzker has worked with the General Assembly to pass a tax reform package—known as the “Fair Tax”—predicated on replacing the flat rate individual income tax Illinois currently imposes with a graduated rate income tax. Recognizing the difficult political battle that will be waged over the Fair Tax, Governor Pritzker introduced two different General Fund budget proposals for FY 2021. But all of that happened before COVID-19 devasted the economy and drove down tax revenue in all 50 states, including Illinois.
So, as expected, the economic downturn created by the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly worsened the state’s fiscal condition. That said, the analysis in this Report makes it clear that, even if the coronavirus had never happened, the fiscal shortcomings that plague Illinois’ General Fund are long-term, material, and structural, and cannot be resolved without comprehensively reforming the state’s tax policy.