Amid Illinois Money Crisis, Some Budget Award Irony | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Amid Illinois Money Crisis, Some Budget Award Irony

Illinois lawmakers continue hearings this week on the state's troubled budget. Governor Pat Quinn estimates a two-year budget deficit of more than $13 billion. Not exactly the picture of financial health. But here's some irony for you: Illinois keeps getting high marks from a professional association of budget gurus. 

Illinois' budget problems, Governor Quinn and others argue, are the result of the economic downturn - yes - but also years of political inaction and bickering. This current fiscal year the state borrowed billions but can't pay all its bills. Still, a Chicago-based group made up of government budgeting professionals gave Illinois an award, and they weren't trying to be funny.

ESSER: It's called the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award.

Jeffrey Esser is executive director of the Government Finance Officers Association. For six years straight, his group has recognized Illinois' budget book. That's the thick document with all the numbers, charts and graphs, and - this year in Illinois - a photo of Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Park on the cover.

ESSER: It goes to whether the information is presented fairly and accurately. Whether it's understandable to the public and to the press. And whether the budget properly displays all of the plans and the vision and the actual numbers for everyone to see.
HUDZIK: But you don't actually check up on those numbers, right? All that your judges have is the document that's presented to them.
ESSER: Right.

The Government Finance Officers' stamp of approval is based on a limited set of criteria related to presentation. So when a casual reader of Illinois budgets turns just a few pages in and sees in big letters "Distinguished Budget Presentation Award," they should in no way take that to mean the state is "distinguished" for its good financial shape.

MSALL: That would be a mistake to read more into these documents.

Laurence Msall is president of the Civic Federation. Day in and day out, he analyzes government finances.

MSALL: It would be as if someone was giving you a warranty on a car that you were considering buying. If all they told you is that the surface condition of the automobile is in excellent shape, but they don't make any mention as to what's under the hood or the condition of the transmission, that would not be a very strong endorsement to buy that car.

Msall's got nothing against the Government Finance Officers Association. In fact, he praises the group, for trying to get governments to put together budget documents that make sense to the public. He just has some strong feelings about Illinois' fiscal stability, and doesn't want any confusion about what this award means.

MSALL: Illinois would be given an F by most financial analysts who looked at the fact that they appropriated more money than they received last year, that they didn't prioritize their spending, that they borrowed for their pensions instead of taking that money out of the operating budget.

A spokeswoman for the governor's budget office notes the state is facing unprecedented fiscal times. She says employees of the budget office try to "create a budget book that's easy to navigate and filled with a wealth of information," and she says they work long hours to get it done.

And that's really the point of the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award. Governments apply - Illinois paid an entrance fee of close to $700 this year - for bragging rights, sure, but also for staff recognition.

MCELLIGOTT: I wish I could name every single person that contributes to this award...

The Government Finance Officers last week presented the budget award to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Administrative services manager Eileen McElligott accepted it on behalf of her staff.

MCELLIGOTT: This award is for all the departments. Everyone here, thank you.

The water reclamation district and state of Illinois are among the 1300 or so governments who try for the budget presentation award. More than 90-percent of them win. The Governor Finance Officers Association won't tell me who failed.
 
And while there is no specific award for politicians like Governor Quinn for the tax hikes or spending cuts that go into these budget books, they too will get critiqued: by the lawmakers Quinn is asking to act, and by Illinois voters, even those who don't spend time reading the state budget.

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