Op-Ed: Illinois needs federal help for recovery, but bailout unlikely

Gov. J.B. Pritzker made it clear this week that he’s counting on the federal government to help the state financially, not just to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to assist with the state’s economic recovery.

Pritzker said the recent federal CARES Act was a start, adding that Illinois still needs more. He’s right, of course. Illinois has been staving off a financial crisis for decades. State lawmakers failed to put away any money during an 11-year bull run after the Great Recession. They also failed to pass balanced budgets, leading to structural deficits year after year. They also failed to properly fund the state’s unemployment insurance fund.

Pritzker wants the federal government to loan the state cash to keep its unemployment fund solvent as unemployment surges in response to both the coronavirus and the state-ordered shutdown of nonessential businesses under the governor’s stay-at-home order.

But that’s not all. He’s hoping for a lot more from the federal government.

“This is unprecedented,” Pritzker said Monday. “Even compared to 2008-2009, the revenue shortfall, the things that we’re having to do to address this is creating a gap that I don’t think anyone could have anticipated. So we are looking very hard at what we need to do to get the revenues and expenditures in line with one another.”

Very few things are without precedent. While no could have predicted this particular pandemic would hit Illinois in 2020, credit-rating agencies and financial watchdogs have been telling the state’s elected officials for decades that Illinois needed to get its finances in order, build up a rainy day fund and properly fund essential services. Illinois lawmakers didn’t listen.

“I think a lot of it is going to depend upon the federal government,” the governor said. “There’s just no one else who can step in to help our state finances the way that our federal government can. … The truth is we are going to need more, every state is going to need more because every state’s revenues have cratered.”

Yes, every state will need help. But Illinois will need more help because it was in such poor financial shape before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once the public health crisis subsides, the governor will have more time to focus on a recovery plan. But I wouldn’t count on the U.S. Congress to fix all of the state’s financial problems. Pritzker has already learned that federal dollars often come with strings attached.

More importantly, I don’t think Illinois has the political might or goodwill to persuade elected officials from other states to bail out its decades of financial mismanagement.

The federal government should help. And Illinois needs more help. But will it get everything Pritzker wants? Probably not.

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