Source: NY Times

Even by the standards of this deficit-ridden state, Illinois’s comptroller, Daniel W. Hynes, faces an ugly balance sheet. Precisely how ugly becomes clear when he beckons you into his office to examine his daily briefing memo.

He picks the papers off his desk and points to a figure in red: $5.01 billion.

“This is what the state owes right now to schools, rehabilitation centers, child care, the state university — and it’s getting worse every single day,” he says in his downtown office.

Mr. Hynes shakes his head. “This is not some esoteric budget issue; we are not paying bills for absolutely essential services,” he says. “That is obscene.”

For the last few years, California stood more or less unchallenged as a symbol of the fiscal collapse of states during the recession. Now Illinois has shouldered to the fore, as its dysfunctional political class refuses to pay the state’s bills and refuses to take the painful steps — cuts and tax increases — to close a deficit of at least $12 billion, equal to nearly half the state’s budget.

Then there is the spectacularly mismanaged pension system, which is at least 50 percent underfunded and, analysts warn, could push Illinois into insolvency if the economy fails to pick up.

States cannot go bankrupt, technically, but signs of fiscal crackup are easy to see. Legislators left the capital this month without deciding how to pay 26 percent of the state budget. The governor proposes to borrow $3.5 billion to cover a year’s worth of pension payments, a step that would cost about $1 billion in interest. And every major rating agency has downgraded the state; Illinois now pays millions of dollars more to insure its debt than any other state in the nation.

“Their pension is the most underfunded in the nation,” said Karen S. Krop, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “They have not made significant cuts or raised revenues. There’s no state out there like this. They can’t grow their way out of this.”

As the recession has swept over states and cities, it has laid bare economic weakness and shoddy fiscal practices. Only an infusion of federal stimulus money allowed many states to avert deep layoffs last year.

Cuts in Work Forces

The federal dollars are nearly spent. Last month, local governments nationwide shed more than 20,000 jobs. Should the largest struggling states — like California, New York or Illinois — lay off tens of thousands more in coming months, or default on payments, the reverberations could badly damage a weakened economy and push housing prices down still further.

“You’re not seeing these states bounce back, and that could be a big drag on the national economy,” said Susan K. Urahn of the Pew Center on the States. “It could be a very tough decade.”

In Illinois, the fiscal pain is radiating downward.

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