KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
For the first time in two years, the state of Illinois has a budget. Late today, the Illinois House of Representatives overrode the governor's veto of the spending plan that enacts $5 billion in tax increases. We're going to talk now to Brian Mackey. He's the statehouse reporter of Illinois Public Radio. And Brian, why did it take two years for the state to pass a budget?
BRIAN MACKEY, BYLINE: Well there - there's really two things that happened about two years ago. We had a big tax cut that took effect here, and we had a new Republican governor who came into office. He had campaigned on big changes, shaking up Springfield. He had a very long list of conservative policies. One of the big ones was weakening public sector labor unions. He also had a lot of things he wanted to do to - he says would have helped improve the business climate.
We've seen these policy changes in some of our neighboring states - Indiana, Wisconsin. But unlike those states where Republican governors have had more success getting those policies through, the Illinois Democrats had supermajorities in the Illinois Legislature. You know, the governor says he wasn't interested in really negotiating on the budget until he got his agenda through, and that's basically where we've been for two years.
MCEVERS: If Illinois hasn't had a budget for these two years, how has the state been able to function?
MACKEY: Yeah, you know, we really haven't had a shutdown like you see in Washington D.C. or even this week - right? - New Jersey. There were those stories about the beaches that were shut down.
MACKEY: Here, nobody would have really noticed, or I should say most people in Illinois didn't really notice. There was a court order that went into effect, so state employees have stayed on the job. They've continued to get paid. You can still get your driver's license. State parks are still open. But there are a couple of sectors that were really hard hit. Higher education took a big whack from this. The social safety net has been hard hit. So there are some social safety net providers, these - they take care of elderly people. They take care of people with disabilities. Some of them have not been paid all year. There was a stop gap about a year ago that got some of them, you know, sort of kept them going. But you know, basically the state has been held together with bubble gum and scotch tape.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) The governor, you know, had vetoed the original budget. And now that the legislature has overridden that veto, does this mean it's over; Illinois' budget problems are solved?
MACKEY: Not by a long shot.
MACKEY: So we still have - built up during these last two years, we have this $15 billion backlog of unpaid bills because we've been doing all this spending even though we didn't have a budget. That's not the same thing as not spending money - right? So we've been spending basically out of control. And I mentioned that tax cut that had taken effect. So we were spending as though we had all this money coming in that we no longer had. And on top of that, we still have the largest unfunded government employee pension liability in the country. It's about $130 billion. And finally, we had this threat of going to junk bond status. There were - but it's not even clear that this will be enough to hold that off.
MCEVERS: Brian Mackey of Illinois Public Radio, thank you very much.
MACKEY: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS JOSS' "DRINK ME HOT")
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