December 10, 2014
by Gerald Skoning  

Mr. Skoning is a labor and employment lawyer in Chicago

Like millions of other Americans, I have spent cautiously, paid bills on time and maintained a strict budget. That doesn’t make us heroes. But it does mean we have exercised common sense, which has been sorely lacking among the politicians in my home state of Illinois.

The Land of Lincoln has accrued a $111 billion unfunded liability for government workers’ pensions—up 75% from five years ago. There is an additional $56 billion of unfunded debt to cover health benefits for the state’s retirees. Illinois today is already spending more of its general fund on pensions than on K-12 education. One in four tax dollars pays for its retired workers’ benefits. Last year the state had to defer paying $7 billion owed to contractors. All this after Democrats in 2011 raised income taxes and corporate taxes by 67% and 30%, respectively.

It’s getting embarrassing to admit that I’m a citizen of such a deadbeat state.

The level of debt is staggering. According to a recent report by Statista Inc., Illinois residents owe $24,959 each as their share of the outstanding bonds, unfunded pension commitments and budget gaps the state has accumulated. Thank goodness this obligation doesn’t go on my credit report, or my credit rating would be in the tank along with the state’s A-minus bond rating, the worst of any state in the nation.

It is no wonder that 850,000 people have left Illinois for other states in the past 15 years, according to the Illinois Policy Institute. Or that Illinois has become one of the most business unfriendly states in the country (40th in a recent Forbes survey).

Ironically, there is an easy way for me and my fellow Illinoisans to reduce our obligations: Move next door to Indiana, or maybe to Florida. The debt per resident in the Hoosier State is just $5,726 (third lowest in the country) and residents of the Sunshine State owe only $7,175 each (fourth lowest). It may be a coincidence, but the eight lowest debt-per-resident states have Republican governors.

Crushing debt isn’t just Illinois’s problem. According to State Budget Solutions, America’s 50 state governments collectively owe $5.1 trillion, including outstanding bonds, unfunded pension commitments and budget gaps. California has by far the largest debt—$778 billion—more than twice that of No. 2, New York, with $387 billion in red ink.

County and local governments also are huge debtors. The Cook County treasurer notes that the county’s numerous local governments have a debt load of more than $140 billion. Of course, Uncle Sam is the worst offender in the deficit-spending Hall of Shame. The federal debt is more than $17 trillion and increasing by $4 billion a day. Every citizen’s share of the debt is $58,604.

The $17 trillion federal deficit is the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. has nearly more than $115 trillion in unfunded liabilities, principally in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. That’s $1.1 million per U.S. taxpayer.

Forget about Indiana and Florida, maybe I should move to the Cayman Islands. But I’m not going to leave the United States—or Illinois. The message of the midterm elections last month was that Americans want to put the era of fiscal irresponsibility and economic stagnation in the rearview mirror. I’m hoping that Bruce Rauner, the Republican elected governor of deep-blue Illinois, will show them how it can be done.

Mr. Skoning is a labor and employment lawyer in Chicago



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