May 24, 2012
By Sheila Simon
Our state budget is a headache. And a heartache. But we need to address these aches — and a temporary Band-Aid won’t be enough.
Backlogged Medicaid bills and ballooning pension obligations are putting a squeeze on our state budget. Without major changes, health care for our neediest residents and retirement benefits for faithful public employees will eat 39 percent of the state’s spending plan this coming year. Each dollar added to that total takes away a dollar from human services, law enforcement or other expenses.
As the governor’s point person on education reform, I see most clearly the squeeze on school funding. Illinois education funding is leaner than most states. But given the known Medicaid and pension costs, our State Board of Education is bracing for a half-billion reduction in state dollars.
And the impact is not just felt by local grade schools and high schools. It hits home for students trying to cobble together money for college whether they play to study microbiology or welding.
Here’s one example. In the past decade, the buying power of the state’s Monetary Award Program, a grant to the neediest college students, has fallen dramatically. MAP grants used to cover full tuition and fees at public community colleges and universities; now students are lucky if it covers half. And for every student who received partial assistance from MAP this year, another qualified applicant was denied. We just didn’t have enough grant dollars to go around.
We need those college credentials now more than ever before. In Illinois, nearly 140,000 jobs are going unfilled because workers lack the necessary skills. We need to invest in students and schools if we expect to bridge that skills gap and reach our state’s big goal: 60 percent of our working-age adults to hold a degree or certificate by 2025. An educated and agile work force is key to building and attracting quality jobs. Without that investment in education, our economic recovery could falter.
The governor and the legislature are working to strengthen and stabilize our Medicaid and pension systems. Some reforms will be palatable. For example, many private insurance plans pay for eyeglasses once every two years. Limiting those insured by Medicaid to the same rate is reasonable. And limiting public pensions to public employees also makes sense.
But many of the reforms will be difficult. In the next week, our elected leaders will need to take some positions that disappoint some friends and constituents. But our long-term health as a state demands those choices.
It would be politically easy to take the short-term, feel good position. But that short-term, feel-good mentality got us into the squeeze we are in right now. Now is the time to think long term — to make sure our pension system is sustainable, to move toward paying bills to health care providers and schools on time, to make sure students can invest in their own education, and to show entrepreneurs that this state is a solid place to plant and grow their businesses.
The long-term view involves painful choices, but being brave enough to take that medicine is what will get us back to a healthy state.
Sheila Simon is lieutenant governor of Illinois.