State Budget Practice Report Cards and Budget Resource Guide

Though Illinois regrouped after not being able to pass budgets in 2016 and 2017, enacting spending plans in the following years, the state continued to fare poorly in most budgetary categories evaluated by the Volcker Alliance.

For fiscal 2017 through 2019, Illinois received a D-minus average, the lowest possible grade, in budget maneuvers—the use of one-time revenues to achieve balance. For example, Illinois added to the 2019 budget $300 million in assumed proceeds from the proposed sale of the seventeen-story James R. Thompson Center, a state office building in Chicago. It included the same assumed sale and revenue figure in the 2018 budget, but a transaction never took place, leaving the state with a hole to fill. Illinois also continued its practice of deferring scheduled expenditures to balance budgets: As of October 2018, the state comptroller estimated a backlog of $7.2 billion in unpaid vendor bills.

With the states’ second-poorest-funded public worker pension system (only Kentucky’s is worse), Illinois received a D-minus average in legacy costs, which cover pensions and other postemployment benefits (OPEB), principally health care. In 2018, Illinois pensions were funded at only 39 percent of estimated obligations—31 percentage points below the total for all states.

In contrast to its basement-dwelling budget maneuvers and legacy costs grades, Illinois earned a B average in transparency.  A main driver of the score was its inclusion in the 2019 budget and other documents of cost estimates of deferred infrastructure maintenance, which exceed $26 billion for state buildings, universities, roads, bridges, and local K–12 schools. Publication of the data helped Illinois score a top A annual grade for transparency in 2019. Only four other states—Alaska, California, Hawaii, and Tennessee—provide similar reports.

Download Printable State Report Card

To emphasize the need for clear and comprehensible budgets to inform citizens, promote responsible policymaking, and improve fiscal stability, the Volcker Alliance in 2016 began a study of budgetary and financial reporting practices of all fifty states. The Volcker Alliance’s mission is to improve the effectiveness of the administration of government at all levels. Making state budgeting more transparent and accountable is an important part of that goal.

The report cards presented here are taken from the 2020 Volcker Alliance report, Truth and Integrity in State Budgeting: The Balancing Act, which proposes a set of best practices for policymakers. For those wishing to gain greater insight into state fiscal issues, the accompanying budget resource guide is derived from the Alliance publication State Budget Sources: An Annotated Guide to State Budgets, Financial Reports, and Fiscal Analyses (2016). 

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