Category Archives: Illinois

How Should the State of Illinois Pay for its Unfunded Pension Liability? The Case for a Statewide Residential Property Tax

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

Note: This post is based on previous work presented by the same authors at the forum “Navigating Pension Reform in Illinois: What Lies Ahead”, held on April 17, 2018 at the Chicago Fed. The original presentation is available here.

The State of Illinois has a very large unfunded pension liability and will likely have to pay much of it off by raising taxes. The Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability estimated the state’s unfunded liability at $129.1 billion in mid-2017,[1] which was about 19% of state personal income.[2] Benefits to public employees are protected under the Illinois Constitution, and a recent attempt to reduce the unfunded liability by reducing retirees’ benefits was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court.[3] So, assuming that the state can’t reduce its current pension obligations and that it wants to maintain its current level of services, Illinois residents are going to have to pay higher taxes. What’s the best way to do it?

Because the debt is so large, it’s unrealistic to think that new taxes (such as a tax on legalized marijuana or financial transactions) or increases that affect only a narrow segment of the population will be enough.

Illinois will have to find additional revenues from already existing tax bases, either by increasing rates, expanding the definition of what is taxable, or a combination of the two.[4] Illinois state and local governments have three primary tax revenue sources—income, sales, and property—and each presents a unique set of tradeoffs in terms of how it affects the economy and who pays it.

In our view, Illinois’s best option is to impose a statewide residential property tax that expires when its unfunded pension liability is paid off. In our baseline scenario, we estimate that the tax rate required to pay off the pension debt over 30 years would be about 1%. This means that homeowners with homes worth $250,000 would pay an additional $2,500 per year in property taxes, those with homes worth $500,000 would pay an additional $5,000, and those with homes worth $1 million would pay an additional $10,000.

Perhaps the best counterargument to adding a statewide property tax is that Illinois homeowners already pay higher local property taxes compared to the national average.[5] But remember that Illinois residents will be paying higher taxes one way or another. Would you rather pay your higher taxes through a higher sales, income, or property tax? At the very least, higher property taxes should be part of the solution, perhaps in addition to the solutions proposed by the Civic Federation.

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Trends in Education and Income in Chicago

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser shows that education is one of the strongest predictors of urban economic growth.   This is particularly the case for older cities like Chicago.  One of the reasons for this is that a higher density of college-educated workers is associated with higher levels of worker productivity.

There is very good news for Chicago.  Recent data for 2016 from the United States Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that the city of Chicago now has the highest percentage of college graduates of the seven largest cities in the United States (Table 1).  Almost 2 out of 5 adults twenty-five and older in Chicago have at least a bachelor’s degree. Chicago beats New York City, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix, and Philadelphia.  Of the ten largest cities, only San Diego and San Jose have higher levels of educational attainment as measured by the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree.

If the sample is limited to non-Hispanic whites, Chicago even beats San Diego and San Jose, the home of Silicon Valley.  For this population, over 3 in 5 have a college degree in Chicago.  In some community areas in Chicago like Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and the Loop, about 4 out of 5 have a college degree.

One of the reasons for Chicago’s success in this arena is that the city of Chicago is an attractive place to live and work for college graduates, especially young grads.  Over half of the young college graduates in the Chicago metropolitan area live in the city of Chicago.  This is up from about forty percent in 1990.

Another reason is that migrants to Chicago are more likely to have a college degree.   Last year about 3 of 4 migrants to Chicago from other states and from abroad had a college degree.  Ten years ago only about 1 in 2 migrants to Chicago had a college degree.  It is particularly noteworthy that in 2016 seventy-three percent of foreign migrants to Chicago had a college degree.

If one goes back in time, Census data indicates that adults in the city of Chicago were significantly less educated than their suburban counterparts.  This is no longer the case.  The percentage with a college degree in Chicago is higher now than in the suburbs of the Chicago metropolitan area although some suburbs have higher levels of attainment (Table 2).  For example, 2 out of 3 residents of Evanston have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Although non-Hispanic whites who account for about one-third of the population of Chicago are doing well, the situation for African-Americans and Hispanics is more mixed.  Of the ten largest cities in the United States, African-Americans in Chicago rank seventh and Hispanics rank ninth in the percentage of adults with a college education.

The good news is that both the percentage and number of college-educated African-Americans and Hispanics in the city of Chicago has increased since 2010.  This is also the case for non-Hispanic whites and Asians. In Table 3, data are arrayed on the number and percentage of college graduates in the city of Chicago by race and ethnicity.  The data indicate that the largest gain in the number of college graduates was for non-Hispanic whites followed by Hispanics.  The largest relative gain was for Hispanics (over fifty percent) followed by Asians.  Overall, there was a 20% increase in the number of college graduates in the city of Chicago between 2010 and 2016.   Part of the increase is a result of growth in the number of non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, and Asians in the city.  For the African-American population, growth in the number of college graduates cannot be attributed to population growth because the number of blacks in the city declined by ten percent during the 2010-2016 period.

In suburban areas, the story is different, as shown in Table 4.  For example, in suburban Cook County non-Hispanic whites are over twenty percentage points less likely to have a college degree than their counterparts in the city of Chicago.  Further, there has only been a one percent increase in the number of non-Hispanic whites with a college degree in the suburbs of Cook County. This is partly a result of a seven percent decline in the non-Hispanic white populations in suburban Cook County.  At the same time, there have been large increases in the number of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian college grads in suburban parts of Cook County.  For example, for the 2010-2016 period, the African-American population in suburban Cook County increased twelve percent.

Further, Chicago public schools that disproportionately serve African-American and Hispanic families have improved considerably. Over the past ten years, CPS high school graduation rates have increased from fifty-seven percent to seventy-four percent. Of high school graduates, a higher percentage are going to college. Test scores are up as well. Low-income students in Chicago outperform other low-income students in other districts in Illinois.  A Stanford study argues that CPS is the fastest-improving school district in the country.

It is worth noting that in the 1980s Secretary of Education Bennett called the Chicago public school system “the worst in the nation.”  Although it is not clear if that was ever the case, it certainly is not now.

Although there is good news on education, the evidence on income is more mixed.  This is partly a product of national trends over the past couple of decades.  For the city overall, median real household income increased three percent last year.  Since 2010, real income has increased close to eight percent  although there is substantial variation by race and ethnicity.  Non-Hispanic white income increased seven percent while Hispanic income increased almost ten percent.  Although household income in the African-American community increased this past year, it is almost five percent lower in real terms since 2010.  Over a longer period of time (since 1979) African-American income has declined even more (twenty-one percent) although non-Hispanic white income is up substantially (forty-three percent).

In the suburbs of Chicago, household income has also increased modestly (about three percent) this past year.  Over a longer period of time, non-Hispanic white income in the suburbs is about where it was at in 1979.  However, median household income for African-Americans in the suburbs has remained constant since about 1979.

Although education has increased in the city of Chicago relative to suburban Chicago, median household income in suburban areas is still significant higher than in the city of Chicago.  In 2016, household income in the city was eighty percent of median household income in the metropolitan area.  This is up two percentage points since 2010.

These changes have driven other important changes in Chicago.  On the positive side, the high concentration of talent in parts of the city is resulting in high skilled jobs following the talent, especially to areas in and around the central business district.  Further, more educated and affluent African-Americans and Hispanics have been able to move to suburban locations for better opportunities for their families.

On the negative side, the large and continued decline in income in the African-American community in many parts of the city of Chicago is cause for concern.  This is resulting in well over half of the children in community areas like Englewood and West Garfield Park growing up in poverty.  It is also resulting in large population declines in communities like Englewood and West Englewood.


Revisiting fiscal federalism: Implications of Illinois’s and Chicago’s fiscal problems

Broadly speaking, fiscal federalism is a theory of public finance concerned with how to most appropriately and efficiently provide government services (or public goods) through different levels of government. This theory also involves how to set up the fiscal relationships (e.g., conditional versus unconditional transfers) between the different levels of governments to best provide these services. In the United States (and many other countries), there have traditionally been three levels of government—federal, state, and local—among which to divide up key government functions. According to the purist form of the theory, decentralization away from the federal government promotes welfare gains, as the scale of provision of particular services is scaled to the size of the population being served. This is partly based on the idea that public goods should be defined by geography, such that there are national public goods (such as defense) and local public goods (such as public school systems). Moreover, cost efficiencies—and benefit spillovers—may occur when the level of public service is calibrated to the particular preferences of the electorate in that geography rather than the central government providing the service in a uniform way.[1] Generally, the theory of fiscal federalism has been a guiding principle for the design and delivery of government services in the United States.

In 2008, public finance economist Wallace Oates suggested a revised theory for fiscal federalism.[2] Oates observed that while lower levels of government (states or municipalities) may have explicit rules against running budget deficits or amassing unsupportable levels of debt, they often ignore these restrictions under the hope and belief that a higher level of government (the federal government or states) will bail them out. For Oates, the lower level of government’s political incentives for not having to make difficult fiscal adjustments might outweigh those for exercising fiscal prudence. Therefore, lower levels of government can engage in fiscal behavior that can place burdens on higher levels of government. This reallocation of fiscal costs can undermine the efficiencies gained under the traditional notion of fiscal federalism. In this blog entry, I will consider fiscal federalism, including Oates’s revised version, in light of Illinois’s and Chicago’s recent fiscal challenges. Is the state or the city skirting fiscal rules in the hopes that a higher level of government might bail it out? Are the political incentives not to solve the problems now large enough to forestall any further action to fix them?

New perspectives on fiscal federalism

Oates suggests an important revision to thinking about the actual operation of fiscal federalism. Oates argues that rather than promoting the efficient provision of government services, fiscal federalism can incentivize certain levels of government to try to extract or indeed extract (albeit inefficiently) resources from other levels of government. An example of this is a “soft-budget constraint.” If there’s an implicit understanding that a lower level of government can count on help from a higher level of government when the former gets into fiscal difficulties, the lower level may be encouraged to unduly run deficits and expand debt. Essentially, for the lower level of government, there’s no credibility to any pledge by the higher level of government to not intercede during a time of fiscal stress. The lower level of government operates under the assumption that the higher level of government is interested in the welfare of all of its citizens, so it cannot allow a lower level of government to fail. The key question is why there is a soft-budget constraint? One theory is that the fiscal responsibilities between governments are poorly defined, which can lead to fiscal misbehavior. For instance, local governments may view themselves as providing essential public services that higher levels of government could justify supporting during an economic downturn. So, local governments may not be maintaining a rainy day fund, instead allocating dollars that should have reserved for such a fund to other parts of the budget that are more politically expedient. A second theory is that in many cases, the bond market presently does not—or perhaps cannot—accurately account for the political or financial risk of some government bonds. This may be reflected in fairly positive bond ratings for poorly fiscally performing units of government. Of course, bond ratings are designed to reflect the default risk attached to a specific bond issuance and not necessarily the underlying strength of the issuing government. If the bond covenant provides protections and preferences for the bond to be repaid even in the face of poor fiscal performance, the rating will reflect this. Still, such “mispricing” in the bond market can allow for mischief on the part of lower levels of government. So, for example, if borrowing (to cover a deficit) can continue even in the face of fiscal instability, the only penalty a profligate local government faces is having to pay a higher borrowing rate. Similarly, if the capitalization of poor fiscal performance into land values is not readily recognized (or in the case of strong fiscal performance, not rewarded), the political penalties of poor management may be small, at least to the current stewards. Additionally, if there is a history of bailouts by the federal government during recessions, it can be rational to assume that lower levels of government can be bailed out by a higher level of government that does not face a budget constraint. This belief can breed fiscal misbehavior among lower levels of government.

Considering the fiscal woes of the State of Illinois and the City Chicago, there’s a strong case to be made that all of the aforementioned may have occurred. First, despite frequent and substantial credit rating downgrades, both Illinois and Chicago have repeatedly issued bonds despite their deteriorating fiscal conditions. While these bonds have carried higher interest rates, the ability of the state and local government to take on more debt despite their fiscal problems suggests that the bond market provides little discipline for poor fiscal behavior. Second, Chicago has sought fiscal relief for times when the state has tried to impose a fiscal limit. The state passed new pension contribution requirements for Chicago; and when the costs of funding these requirements became apparent, the city government requested a new schedule for making these payments. Even at the state level, the funds that Illinois received from the federal government in the wake of the Great Recession (as part of the countercyclical aid program instituted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) arguably helped the state not make fiscal adjustments in light of deteriorating circumstances. In practice, this means that residents potentially overconsume public services because they do not pay the full tax associated with providing the service.

How to make fiscal decentralization more effective

With all that said, this discussion of the theory of fiscal federalism can still extend to whether the “right” level of government is delivering the “right” service and which level of government should be paying for that service. Early childhood education is a good example illustrating the challenges associated with figuring these things out. Often early childhood education is provided at the local level (sometimes, it’s provided at the state level); yet given the national returns to improving educational outcomes, some would argue that this should be a federally funded program.

To determine the size of welfare gains from fiscal decentralization, it is important to calculate the variation in demand for the government services across jurisdictions, as well as the variation in costs for providing these services. If no variation existed, central provision of a uniform public service would probably make the most sense. However, since variation does exist, welfare gains can be realized, assuming the state or local government can estimate the level of service that residents demand. Under fiscal federalism, a multilevel system of government efficiently provides different types of public services to its specific constituencies. A complicating factor is when a government service provides a spillover benefit to another constituency. In a case of a locally provided government service that has a spillover benefit, an efficient form of fiscal federalism would suggest that the higher level of government provide a grant in order to encourage the local government to provide the service in a socially efficient way. An example of this might be a grant from the federal government or state government to a local police force to share its law-enforcement database with others. Oates also argues that in some cases fiscal equalization grants might be called for when a locality lacks the tax base and/or resources or faces high costs in providing particular services.

A new model for fiscal federalism?

Coupled with the original notion of a fiscal federalist system, Oates’s critique suggests a new model may be needed. This model would have two components. First, there would be a binding budget constraint on both the state and local governments. If policymakers in both subnational governments knew that they had to provide truly balanced budgets on an annual basis, they could not create budget deficits under the assumption that their governments could be bailed out by a higher level of government. In practice this would mean that each subnational government would have to have a structurally balanced budget,[3] based on normal trends in the state or locality. Work by Richard Dye and David Merriman[4] has created a structural model of total state expenditures and revenues for the State of Illinois, which allows the future budget performance to be projected under the assumption that the underlying trends in expenditures and revenues are maintained. This type of model allows an estimation of the structural budget gap between expenditures and revenues to be identified.

To be clear, a binding budget constraint would need to exist to determine the structural trend in the state or localities budget. The exception where aid from the federal government could be warranted is in the case of a national recession. During a downturn in the business cycle, maintaining social service and other countercyclical state and local spending can have a positive spillover effect to the national economy and, therefore, reflect good fiscal policy. However, even in this case, the federal assistance should be linked to an objective, rules-based method for determining the timing and appropriate level of federal support.[5] The alternative to permitting federal intervention during a national recession would be to require states to carry larger budget reserves to smooth out what would otherwise be volatile fiscal behavior during a downturn. The size of the reserves could be determined from a stress-test type model, where the sensitivity of the state budget to differing economic scenarios could be estimated. States with more stable revenues and expenditures in fiscal downturn scenarios would carry smaller reserves than those with more volatile taxes and spending.[6] Again, the approach would be to base this on a rules-based system to ensure all states and localities comply. Part of the goal of such a binding system is to improve fiscal transparency: This approach would make the true tax price of providing government services readily apparent.

The second element of this revised federalist model is to do a better job at estimating where spillovers occur in government provision to ensure that the right level of government is providing resources for the service. Robert Inman[7] has consistently argued that it is inefficient for cities—which often have larger shares of distressed population than suburbs and rural areas—to be responsible for funding government programs targeted to this population. His preferred strategy would be for the city government to develop and administer the government programs, but with funding provided at the regional level. Under the usual fiscal federalist structure, the city absorbs the cost of providing a service (to the distressed population) that yields regional spillovers. Inman has further argued that program provision at the local level can be more efficient because those in the local government will likely know the needs of the population better than those in a higher level of government. He suggests that this is what occurs in Pittsburgh: The county funds Pittsburgh’s social welfare programs, and the city is responsible for administering them. When cities are forced to bear these costs alone, this can limit their ability to fund other government services that might encourage private sector investment. An example of a more controversial extension of this idea would be to examine how investments in human capital and education are made. If it can be assumed that there is a national economic return to human capital investment, an education model that is based on local preferences may not be the most efficient. A purely local model would make sense if it can be assumed that the level of education provided meets local taxpayers’ expectations and that recipients of the education stay in the locality. However, under the assumption that promoting labor mobility is desirable, changes in certain expectations for education might be appropriate. For example, state reductions in funding for higher education has been frequently lamented. A clear case for state support could in theory be based on whether the graduates stay in the state after graduation so that the state and taxpayers receive a return on their education investment. Assuming that students at community or regional institutions within the state may be less mobile, state support may be more justified for these types of schools than for a flagship university drawing an increasingly national or international student body that is more mobile after graduation. In fact, in most cases, recent reductions in support for public university systems have been most pronounced for the flagship public institutions. That said, if the spillovers from the national public universities are to the nation as a whole, this suggests that increased federal support might be appropriate. Again, the goal is to identify where the spillover occurs and to better match where the funding comes from with the level of government benefiting from the service provision.


Fiscal federalism’s guiding principles have generally served the United States well throughout its history. However, Oates and others are correct in arguing that these principles, along with the underlying theory, need to be revised—especially given how federal, state, and local governments have behaved over the past few years.

[1] Another gain from fiscal decentralization may be innovation. Allowing service delivery experimentation tailored to the constituency the level of government is serving can lead to breakthroughs in service delivery, which may applied to other jurisdictions.

[2] Wallace E. Oates, 2008, “On the evolution of fiscal federalism: Theory and institutions,” National Tax Journal, Vol. 61, No. 2, June, pp. 313–334,

[3] To see what I mean by “structurally balanced budget,” see

[4] See, for instance,

[5] For a discussion on how to optimally design federal support, see Richard H. Mattoon, Vanessa Haleco-Meyer, and Taft Foster, 2010, “Improving the impact of federal aid to the states,” Economic Perspectives, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Vol. 34, Third Quarter, pp. 66–82,

[6] Richard Mattoon, 2003, “Creating a national state rainy day fund: A modest proposal to improve future state fiscal performance,” Proceedings: Annual Conference on Taxation and Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the National Tax Association, Vol. 96, pp. 118–124,

[7] Robert P. Inman, 1995, “How to have a fiscal crisis: Lessons from Philadelphia,” American Economic Review, Vol. 85, No. 2, May, pp. 378–383,

Measuring Tax Capacity for Municipalities in Cook County

Illinois’s fiscal situation will likely require tax and revenue increases. How might we assess a municipality’s tax capacity, or ability to “absorb” a larger tax bill? In our previous blog, we reviewed various methods of assessing tax capacity. Now, we use the municipal-gap method to estimate tax capacities for Cook County municipalities.

The municipal gap is the difference between revenue capacity and expected expenditures. We estimate revenue capacity by multiplying the total equalized assessed property values (EAVs) in each municipality by a standard tax rate-the rate required to bring the total property tax revenues of Cook County municipalities in line with their total expenditures on non-school municipal services. Our measure of (own-source) revenue capacity excludes intergovernmental transfers. We predict expected expenditures based on estimates of each municipality’s socioeconomic and physical characteristics. Finally, we subtract expected expenditures from revenue capacity to get the municipal gap. A positive gap implies that a municipality has a larger tax capacity, and a negative gap implies a smaller tax capacity.

In practice, this analysis need not be restricted to municipalities located within one county. However, differences across counties in property assessment practices, as well as the quality and composition of services provided, may distort differences in the municipal gap. Restricting the sample to Cook County municipalities should limit differences due to these extraneous characteristics. To this end, we also exclude municipalities with smaller populations (those with populations below the 25th percentile for Cook County). Consequently, results from our analysis can be generalized to a subset of Cook County municipalities and expenditures, namely general government, which largely consists of public safety expenditures.

Data Sources and Calculations

Non-school municipal expenditures and EAVs were obtained from the Illinois Comptroller’s Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Financial Report.1 In the report, expenditures are categorized according to their reported functions (e.g., public safety) and governmental fund (e.g., general fund). We calculated non-school expenditures by combining all reported expenses across functions and funds. Revenue capacity was calculated by multiplying each municipality’s EAVs by a standard tax rate, which is the aggregate Cook County expenditures divided by aggregate EAVs; the resulting rate is 12.8%. Both expenditures and revenue capacity are normalized across municipalities by expressing them in dollars per capita.

Estimates of socioeconomic and physical characteristics were obtained from the Census Bureau 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimates.2 We separated characteristics into two groups: environmental and control variables. Environmental variables are assumed to be more exogenous to the choices of local officials and are used to predict expected expenditures. They include the unemployment rate, poverty rate, population density, and population (logged). In contrast, control variables are assumed to be less exogenous, and either failing to control for these factors or using them to predict expenditures may bias our predictions of expected expenditures. Control variables include the percentage of the population ages 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher, income per capita, the percentage of housing units that are owner-occupied, the median age of the population, and whether the municipality owns or operates a public utility company (this last measure comes from the Comptroller’s report).

Brief Data Summary

Table 1 provides descriptive statistics on expenditures, revenue capacity, and the environmental and control variables. On average, a municipality spends $2,545 per capita on non-school services. Cook County municipalities allocate, on average, 33% of non-school expenditures to public safety, and only 2% to social services. The large gap between average revenue capacity ($4,199 per capita) and average expenditures underscores the fact that we exclude a large portion of all expenditures municipalities face, such as those appropriated to overlapping governments. The sizes of standard deviations reflect substantial heterogeneity in the compositions of expenditures across municipalities, in particular for debt and capital outlay. The minimum value for the other expenditures/expenses category in part reflects reimbursements.


Calculating Municipal Gaps

We use regression analysis to derive expected expenditures. First, we estimate the effects of environmental variables on the dependent variable, actual municipal expenditures, while holding constant the control variables. Second, we predict expected expenditures using a municipality’s actual values of the environmental variables and the estimated effects.

Table 2 provides results from estimating the effects of environmental and control variables on non-school municipal expenditures. Altogether, we could find no evidence that the environmental variables affect municipal expenditures, controlling for additional factors. In addition, the adjusted R-squared value suggests that we explain roughly 40% of the variation in expenditures (around its mean). Table 3 provides an example of calculating expected expenditures for the City of Chicago (values were rounded to 2 decimal places). Multiplying a municipality’s actual values for the environmental variables by each variable’s corresponding effect results in that variable’s contribution to expected expenditures; summing all the contributions leads to expected expenditures. The final step in the analysis is subtracting expected expenditures from revenue capacity, resulting in the municipal gap.



Results and Conclusion

Table 4 displays the results for municipalities with the largest and smallest gaps. Glencoe Village is assigned the largest positive gap, with an additional $15,846 in revenue per capita available after appropriating funds for expected expenditures. In contrast, Park Forest Village would require an additional $1,802 in revenue per capita to fund its remaining expected expenditures. How do the results of the municipal gap analysis using expected expenditures compare to those using actual expenditures? Table 5 provides findings for the latter scenario. Results for all municipalities included in our study may be obtained here.



Mapping the municipal gaps illustrates the geographic discrepancies in tax capacity. Figure 1 displays the municipal gaps calculated using expected expenditures. For comparison, figure 2 displays the municipal gaps calculated using actual expenditures. Results are largely consistent between the two; one primary difference is that tax capacity is larger for several southern Cook County municipalities in the analysis with actual expenditures. Perhaps one unsurprising result is that, in general, northern Cook County municipalities have greater tax capacity than more central and southern Cook County municipalities. However, there are “pockets” of municipalities with smaller tax capacity located within regions that have greater tax capacity, and vice versa.

Figure 1: Gap with Expected Expenditures


Figure 2: Gap with Actual Expenditures


In sum, identifying the ability for municipalities to absorb larger tax bills is becoming increasingly crucial to estimating local governments’ capacity to generate additional own-source revenues. Several methods exist that rely on comparisons between each government’s revenue and expenditures under hypothetical conditions. Here, we utilized the municipal-gap method to identify tax capacities for a subset of Cook County municipalities. Among the limitations of our analysis is the fact that we exclude important information on both the revenue and expenditure sides. Our analysis relies on non-school expenditures and property values to derive expected expenditures and revenue capacity. Local officials with more complete information on expenditures (e.g., for overlapping governments and schools) and revenues from additional sources (e.g., intergovernmental transfers) may benefit from estimating tax capacity using the municipal-gap approach, or one of the other methods we talked about in our previous blog.

  1. FY2014 Annual Financial Report data procured from the financial database website.
  2. U.S. Census Bureau; 2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,

Poor fiscal performance a problem for both state and local governments in Illinois

For a recent Chicago Fed Letter article, I looked back at the fiscal performance of Illinois’s state and local governments and found that, taken together, Illinois governments had been consistently spending more than they had brought in since at least the late 1980s. I also found that while the typical U.S. state often spent more than its revenues over this period, the extent of Illinois’s overspending (or under-taxing) was significantly greater. Finally, I found that the biggest difference in spending between Illinois and the typical state was that Illinois governments spent more on pensions.[1]

As I discussed in the article, in order to compare Illinois’s fiscal performance with other states’, I had to combine the data for state and local governments together. This was necessary because each state divides responsibilities for its activities differently between state and local governments (for example, some states fund K–12 schools primarily through state revenues, while others fund them primarily through local revenues).

That said, one question that naturally arises from my analysis is this: Was it Illinois’s state government, its local governments, or both that engaged in overspending (or under-taxing)? While it is not feasible to use the U.S. Census Bureau data I used for the Chicago Fed Letter to compare the performance of Illinois’s state or local governments with those of other states and their localities, it is possible to compare the performance of Illinois’s state government with that of its local governments.

There is one important caveat to the comparison that follows. During fiscal years (FY) 1988–2013, an average of 25.2% of local government revenues in Illinois came from the State of Illinois. This means that local governments in Illinois depend quite heavily on revenues from the state government to balance their books, and that some amount of overspending (or under-taxing) at the local level could be the result of unpredictable declines in revenues from the state government. However, at least for FY1988–2013, this does not appear to be the case, because the percentage of local revenues coming from the state was relatively stable (the standard deviation was 1.9 percentage points). Any overspending at the local level, then, was largely the result of locally made decisions.

Figure 1 plots expenditures as a share of revenues for the State of Illinois and for the sum of local governments in Illinois since FY1988.[2] Over these years, local governments (summed together) have never spent less than they brought in. Perhaps surprisingly, the State of Illinois often performed better than local governments, though it did much worse in the years following the 2001 and 2008 recessions. The state spent less than it brought in in seven out of the 26 years the data cover—which is not a good performance, but better than the performance of local governments.


Because the Census Bureau data lump all 6,963 local governments in Illinois[3] together, it is impossible to know from the data which of these governments are responsible for the overall overspending (or under-taxing). Poor fiscal performance could be concentrated in a few large governments or be widespread. While it is well beyond the scope of this blog post to gather data on the overall fiscal performance of thousands of local governments, I am able to look at the performance of local governments’ pension systems, which is insightful because as I noted earlier, pension spending was one of the biggest contributors to overspending (or under-taxing) by Illinois governments.

Perhaps the best summary measure of the condition of a pension system is its unfunded liability. This is the difference between the discounted present value of all the future payouts the pension has promised to make and the value of the pension’s assets. The unfunded liability, then, is the amount that taxpayers will have to contribute to the pension system in order for it to be able to cover all of its promised future payouts.

Table 1 shows a breakdown by locale of the total unfunded pension liability facing Illinois state and local governments at the end of FY2014.[4] Of the $158.2 billion total, $104.6 billion (66%) was the responsibility of the state government and the remaining $53.6 billion (34%) was the responsibility of local governments. Beyond the state versus local government comparison, things get complicated because some pension systems cover overlapping geographies. The City of Chicago has six separate pension funds covering its workers, and there are three for Cook County employees (Cook County holds almost the entirety of Chicago and a number of its suburbs[5]). On top of that, most municipalities have their own police and firefighters pensions, and there is a single pension system for all other non-Chicago municipality workers called the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Even though the system of local government pensions in Illinois is somewhat complicated, it is clear from table 1 that the City of Chicago is disproportionally responsible for the accumulation of local unfunded pension liabilities. A little over one-fifth of Illinois’s population is in Chicago, but Chicago is responsible for more than half of local government unfunded pension liabilities in Illinois. Chicago residents owe $10,492 per person to their city’s pension systems, on top of the $8,130 per person they owe to the state pension systems.


To make the comparison of the unfunded liabilities of Illinois’s local governments clearer, I show in table 2 the total per capita state and local unfunded liability by place of residence. There is one wrinkle acknowledged within the table, however, which is that Chicago residents are responsible for the pensions of all Illinois teachers, while Illinois residents outside of Chicago are not responsible for the pensions of Chicago teachers. Thus, perhaps a fairer comparison is to count the unfunded liability of the Chicago teachers’ pension fund as a state-level liability. While this change reduces the unfunded pension liability faced by Chicago residents by 13%, they still would owe a total of $17,506 per person to various Illinois pension systems. Those living outside Chicago would face a smaller, but still quite large, liability per person ($11,954 in suburban Cook County and $10,553 outside Cook County).


While suburban and downstate police and fire pension systems make up a relatively small part of the total unfunded pension liability of Illinois’s state and local governments (5.6%), pension systems for some municipalities may be in much worse shape than others, so that these liabilities can still matter quite a bit. Table 3 shows the unfunded liabilities for police and firefighters pensions for the 25 most populous cities in Illinois. Chicago is in the worst shape, but residents of Moline, Rock Island, Evanston, and Peoria all owe more than $2,000 per resident to their police and firefighters pension systems. Some cities are in much better shape. For example, residents of Urbana owe fewer than $500 per resident to their systems.


This blog post shows that overspending (or under-taxing) has long been a problem for both the State of Illinois and the local governments in Illinois, with the accumulation of unfunded pension liabilities playing an important role at both levels of government. And while the City of Chicago has built up a larger unfunded pension liability than that of suburban Chicago and downstate Illinois, every region of Illinois bears some blame for overspending (or, once again, under-taxing).

[1] See the Chicago Fed Letter for a detailed explanation of how I calculate pension spending.

[2]See Chicago Fed Letter for details about how these figures are calculated. Expenditures include the change in pension liabilities.

[3] 2012 Census of Governments (

[4] All unfunded liability data come from the 2015 Biennial Report of the Illinois Department of Insurance Public Pension Division,

[5] Technically, a portion of O’Hare Airport—and therefore Chicago—is in DuPage County.

What is Illinois’s Tax Capacity?

A recent study ranked Illinois 47th among U.S. states and Puerto Rico for its fiscal health.1 Particularly concerning was the report’s finding that the combination of total debt, unfunded pension liabilities, and underfunded other post-employment benefits amounts to 61% of total state personal income. In contrast, the same figure for other Seventh District states ranges from a high of 38% in Michigan to a low of 16% in Indiana. Given the magnitude of Illinois’s debt, any plan aimed at improving the state’s fiscal solvency will likely require both expenditure cuts and tax and revenue increases.

So what is the taxable capacity of Illinois? Two broad issues arise. First is the issue of fairness: Would further taxation violate society’s notions of imposing undue burdens on those who can least afford it? Second is the issue of impairing economic activity: Would further taxation discourage economic activity or otherwise drive out taxable wealth to an unacceptable degree?

In this blog post, we describe several methods for identifying a community’s tax capacity. In general, researchers have attempted to measure and compare capacities for specific places by calculating hypotheticals that rely on norms or averages across all places. For example, how much revenue might we expect to raise in a community if we imposed average tax rates there? And how much should a community be spending on public services, given its population characteristics and its need for services? And importantly, how do the two estimates differ? Are there obvious gaps between resources and needs?

Gordon, Auxier, and Iselin (2016)2 used such a representative revenue and expenditure approach to estimate this hypothetical gap in funds a state has available for government operations. The study documents that there is enormous variation in the amount of revenue states collect and what they spend on public goods and services. To drill down to tax capacity, the study measures what each state would collect in revenues and spend on government services if it followed national averages, adjusted for state-specific economic and demographic factors. Table 1, section (1) shows the actual gap, or the difference between actual revenues and expenditures, in FY2012, assuming that states rely only on revenues that they raise themselves through taxes and fees. The gaps are sizable, but adding in federal transfers largely erases the gaps. Turning to the hypotheticals as they relate to tax capacity, Table 1, section (2) compares representative revenues, or revenues that a state would raise if it had an average tax structure, to representative expenditures, or expenditures if the state had an average spending per capita. In contrast to the actual gap, the representative gap remains even after the addition of federal transfers in all of the Seventh District states other than Iowa. In this hypothetical case, if Seventh District states (other than Iowa) adopted a nationally representative tax structure, they would not have sufficient resources even after federal transfers to provide a representative level of public expenditures.


Haughwout et al. (2003)3 developed a more refined analysis, termed the “revenue-hill” method, that estimates the deterioration in tax capacity that takes place as higher tax rates discourage taxable activity. The revenue hill builds a hypothetical schedule of tax rates and revenues that demonstrates how fully a city is utilizing its tax base. The goal is to build a “Laffer Curve” that allows policymakers to estimate the economic effects of the next tax dollar (e.g., effect on employment). The closer the measure is to the top of the hill, the closer the city is to exhausting its tax capacity. Once a city is over the top of the hill, increases in tax rates will become so unproductive that revenues actually decline. These measures can be constructed for each tax base a city might use. Therefore, while a city may have reached capacity for one tax base (e.g., sales tax), it may still have capacity in another (e.g., property tax). Haughwout et al. (2003) examined four cities—New York, Philadelphia, Houston, and Minneapolis—and found that only Minneapolis was “comfortably” below its revenue hill, and thus had additional tax capacity. In the case of Minneapolis, additional taxes could provide net benefits to property owners. New York and Houston were at the top of their revenue hills, implying that additional taxes would have a negative impact on employment.

Finally, Bo Zhao and Jennifer Weiner of the Boston Fed suggested the “municipal-gap” method for measuring tax capacities across municipalities in Connecticut, by recognizing that taxable capacity can only be measured in the context of a government’s particular needs and resource costs in providing adequate services.4  For example, limited tax capacity can exist when a community faces higher costs or fewer resources for providing public services (or both). In both cases, it can be driven by economic, topographic, and demographic factors specific to the community (e.g., a relatively high rate of poverty or significant risk of extreme weather).

First, one identifies revenue capacity. Revenue capacity is defined as the ability of municipalities to raise revenue from all of the sources they are authorized to tax, even if they choose not to tax a particular base. Capacity is calculated using the “representative tax system” approach, where all communities use a standard uniform tax rate against the tax base. The rate is determined by ensuring that the statewide rate raises enough revenue to cover existing expenditures. Second, one identifies expected expenditures–the average level of spending based on the municipality’s underlying socioeconomic and physical characteristics. This number is is calculated using regression analysis to predict a municipality’s expenditures based on actual values of the underlying characteristics. One purpose of deriving expected expenditures is to remove the variation in expenditures due to the choices of local officials who may favor particular government programs.

The study focused on the costs of providing largely non-educational local services, primarily public safety. It found that large fiscal disparities in Connecticut were primarily driven by their differences in revenue raising capacity. The uneven distribution of the property tax base coupled with the relative dependence on property tax revenues in the state meant that resource-rich municipalities had, on average, per capita revenue capacity eight times that of resource-poor towns. The cost of providing municipal services was less dispersed, with the highest-cost municipalities spending 1.3 times that of the lowest-cost towns. Importantly, the study also found that non-school revenue grants from the state had limited effect in reducing fiscal disparities.

What can tax capacity studies tell us about Illinois’s fiscal problems?

Illinois has a particularly difficult choice when it comes to future tax adjustments. First, the debt overhang at the state level is so large that any future tax increases will necessarily be directed to paying down debt rather than purchasing new services. Incremental tax increases will pay for services already consumed and, as such, it is difficult to see how future taxes will provide governments with resources to support programs that enhance growth. Second, capacity studies, such as Gordon et al. (2016), suggest that Illinois has already reached its capacity limits. While it would be a stretch to adapt this to the revenue-hill concept of actual declines in revenues in response to tax hikes, it does imply that Illinois has little room to increase taxes without reducing economic activity in ways that would be damaging. The depth of the problem increases when recognizing that many Illinois municipalities also face revenue gaps that would make the compound effects of a state tax increase coupled with a local increase that much worse. As these studies show, there tends to be considerable variation in both the level of expenditures and available revenues across any state when it comes to financing government services. The question then becomes what is the geography of tax capacity in Illinois?

In a second blog, we will apply local revenue capacity and service cost to Illinois municipalities. Stay tuned to see what fiscal disparities might exist for municipalities in Cook County.

  1. Norcross, E., & Gonzalez, O. (2016). Ranking the States By Fiscal Condition.
  2. Gordon, T., Auxier, R., & Iselin, J. (2016). Assessing Fiscal Capacities of States.
  3. Haughwout, A., Inman, R., Craig, S., & Luce, T. (2003). Local Revenue Hills: Evidence from Four U.S. Cities.
  4. Zhao, B., & Weiner, J. (2015). Measuring Municipal Fiscal Disparities in Connecticut.

Can Budget Rules Help Reduce Fiscal Troubles in Illinois?

Fiscal analysts and credit rating agencies have criticized Illinois government officials for their fiscal mismanagement, especially the shifting of debt obligations incurred to pay for current services onto future generations. The growth of unfunded public employee pension obligations has been the most egregious example. Moreover, state and local governments have allowed bills for current services to grow unabated, while existing debt outstanding for capital projects has been refinanced beyond the useful life of the projects themselves.1

At first blush, remedies to such behaviors might seem to be simply a matter of mobilizing the will to balance budgets through spending reductions and tax increases. In some cases, the electorate seeks to discipline elected officials to behave responsibly. However, election discipline and public oversight often fall short. Elected officials may fail to reduce spending because they don’t want to appear to renege on campaign promises; similarly, tax hikes are seen to be too unpopular with the voting public. Accordingly, a helpful alternative is to build in budgetary procedures and practices that assist the public to oversee and discipline the fiscal actions and behaviors of their elected officials.

Given the sorry state of fiscal affairs in many Illinois governments, structural regulatory changes should be considered in order to hold officials accountable and to provide the public with clear and consistent information regarding the state’s financial condition. Regulations constraining fiscal flexibility could force policymakers to act more responsibly and limit their ability to make unrealistic financial promises and disguise questionable fiscal decisions.

In a recent paper by Richard Dye, David Merriman, and Andrew Crosby, the authors describe four fundamental principles of sound budgetary practice – advance planning, sustainability, flexibility, and transparency – all important areas of improvement for Illinois. The authors then outlined five methods by which Illinois could break its bad habits and adopt more robust budgetary practices.

First, Illinois should refine and expand multiyear budget planning. Currently, Illinois does not have a budget plan that looks far enough into the future, or that covers a wide enough scope of projections to maximize its usefulness as a gauge of fiscal stability. Some improvements have been made; for example, budgetary projections by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) and the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget (GOMB) now cover three years. But they would be more informative and useful if they covered five years. Plans would also better measure fiscal stability if they covered a broader scope of projections. Currently, the plans only cover the general funds, leaving out hundreds of special funds comprising over half of the state’s budget.

Budget planning for a given year could also be expanded to include projected spending from current services, even if it does not affect that year’s balance sheet. This would help the state improve its advance planning by forcing officials to look farther into the future and analyze a broader scope of areas affected by current fiscal decisions. Furthermore, it might help the state address its sustainability issue, by holding today’s politicians accountable for future payments incurred by current services, rather than deferring payment of today’s labor into the future, handing the debt to their successors.

Second, the state of Illinois should require that meaningful fiscal notes accompany any legislation with a significant impact on future revenue flows or spending obligations. Fiscal notes, which are rarely used in Illinois, would include any cost estimates for legislation over a designated period of time. These would help Illinois better document time-shifting in its revenue and expenditures and identify nonrecurring revenue in budget documents. It is much easier for government officials to justify expensive programs or policies when the revenue flow is ambiguous and when one-time revenue sources, such as asset sales, are not disclosed.

Third, the authors suggest that the state should modify cash-only budget reporting to better track significant changes in liabilities and assets. Currently, Illinois relies on single-year, cash-basis accounting, which reports only receipts and payments in the current budget year. Accrual accounting, on the other hand, also covers changes in assets or liabilities that are attributable to that budget year, but not actually implemented until a future year. A cash-only budget allows the state to disguise time-shifting consequences of current fiscal actions. Moving away from this practice would make government spending more transparent by revealing deceptive fiscal actions, such as making payments with temporary revenue sources or promising to return loans in the future without continuous revenue sources to guarantee they’ll be paid.

Along those lines, the authors’ fourth suggestion is that Illinois should identify non-sustainable or one-time revenue sources in its budget reports, allowing the public to gain a better understanding of the time horizons of various revenue sources. Additionally, if the government must label one-time revenue sources, they might be compelled to put more continuous revenue sources toward a stronger “rainy day fund,” which would enable officials to be more flexible in responding to fiscal emergencies.

Finally, the authors argue the state should adopt a broad-based budget frame with meaningful spending and revenue categories consistently defined over time. Inconsistent terminology and accounting techniques make it difficult to track financial conditions and changes over time. For example, it can be challenging to tell how much of a year-to-year change in budget is real versus due to a change in accounting practices.

The state must not only clearly communicate a fiscal plan stretching farther into the future than it currently does, but must also make information more accessible to the public. Fiscal information should be readily available on a timely basis, and online information should routinely provide budget reports, with budget components consistently defined and explanations included when there are transfers between budget categories.

While these five practices would ideally lead to a much more sustainable financial position for Illinois, there are clearly roadblocks preventing Illinois’s government from adopting them, such as political frictions and the momentum of embedded spending and programs. For elected officials, it is often the case that in order to actually deliver upon the programs or actions they campaigned upon, they would need to generate even more debt, for example by borrowing from future budgets to pay off promised pensions today. And because Illinois’s politicians have been accumulating more and more debt for decades, it is unappealing for any of them to be the first to adopt more frugal behavior, perhaps by reducing benefits or scaling down public programs.

In the end, there is no painless path out of Illinois’s current debt crisis for citizens or politicians. But implementing these fiscal practices might serve as a way to ease the transition to better fiscal management, by giving politicians no other option and by providing the public with a more complete picture of where Illinois really stands.

  1. The issues surrounding Illinois’s fiscal conditions, as well as proposed solutions, were discussed at a December 2015 conference, Transparency and Accountability in State Budgeting: Challenges for Illinois and Other States, held at the Union League Club of Chicago. The conference was summarized in a recent Chicago Fed Letter.

Understanding the Seventh District’s economic slowdown in 2015

As I noted on this blog in February 2015, 2014 was a pretty good year for the Seventh District. Real District gross state product (GSP) grew 1.2%, the unemployment rate fell from 7.3% to 5.8%, and payroll employment grew 1.5%. The strong finish to 2014 led me to feel quite optimistic for how 2015 would turn out. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that economic activity in the Seventh District has steadily slowed as 2015 has progressed. While the District is certainly not in recession, it is now likely growing at a below-trend pace. In this blog post, I provide evidence of the slowdown and explore how the fortunes of District states’ signature industries have both contributed to and helped mitigate the slowdown.

While we wait for the GSP data for 2015 to be released (due out in June), arguably the best overall indicator we have for 2015 District economic activity is our Midwest Economy Index [1] (I should note here that we will be releasing a new survey-based activity index later this month). Figure 1 shows values for the MEI from 2014 to the present. The index was well above zero throughout 2014, indicating that growth was consistently above trend. Just as 2015 began, the index began to decline, and it entered negative territory in June. The most recent reading of the MEI (for November 2015) indicates that District growth is somewhat below trend.


Some important indicators included in the calculation of the MEI are payroll employment, the regional Purchasing Manager Indexes (PMIs) [2], and per capita personal income. Not surprisingly, they also largely suggest that economic activity in the District slowed in 2015. Figure 2 shows that while District payroll employment grew by an average of 23,000 jobs per month in 2014, the pace of growth slowed to only about 12,000 new jobs per month in 2015. Figure 3 shows the simple average of the five PMIs available for the Seventh District. This average also indicates that economic activity declined notably starting in 2015. As a counterpoint, figure 4 shows that the pace of growth in real personal income per capita has not slowed much in 2015: The annualized growth rate for 2014 was 3.08% and the available data for 2015 (through Q3) indicate that the annualized growth rate has only slowed to 2.94%.



While the preponderance of evidence suggests that Seventh District economic activity slowed in 2015, it turns out that the experiences of individual states within the District have been quite different. Figure 5 shows the sum of the contributions to the MEI for the eastern states of the District (Indiana and Michigan) and the sum for the western states of the District (Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin). Growth in 2014 was above the District’s long run trend in both sub-regions, but the western states outperformed the eastern states. The pace of activity in the eastern states picked up steadily through the first half of 2015 and has since slowed to near the District’s trend. This experience contrasts quite notably with that of the western states. Activity in these states began to slow at the end of 2014 and continued to slow until the middle of 2015, at which point conditions improved some.


One approach to understanding the different experiences of eastern and western District states is to do an economic base analysis for each state. Such an analysis identifies the industries whose employment is especially concentrated in a state (and therefore likely quite important for the state’s economy) by calculating a location quotient (LQ). A location quotient is the ratio of the share of employment in an industry in a state to the share of employment in an industry in the U.S. as a whole:


As an example, if the machinery industry’s share of employment in Michigan is 1.3% and the machinery industry’s share of employment in the U.S. is 1%, then the location quotient is 1.3, and we say that the machinery industry is 30% more concentrated in Michigan than in the U.S. as a whole.

For this blog post, I calculate location quotients for each state for each of the 3-digit NAICS industries that are available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) payroll employment survey.[3] I then consider the industries in each state with a location quotient greater than 1.5. This approach successfully identifies the signature industries one typically thinks of for each state in the District. For example, the analysis picks up Michigan’s auto industry, Indiana’s steel industry, and Illinois’s, Iowa’s, and Wisconsin’s machinery industry.

Table 1 shows the high-location quotient industries for Indiana and Michigan, along with the percentage of overall employment the industry represents and the year-over-year employment growth rate of the industry from November 2014 to November 2015. With the exception of the primary metals industry (where employment fell by 0.93%), employment grew for all of Indiana’s high-LQ industries and was solid for most of them. The story is even clearer in Michigan, where the auto industry dominates. Employment in the transportation equipment industry grew 4.59% over the past year.

To summarize the overall growth of District states’ flagship industries, I calculate the average growth rate for the industries, weighted by their relative size. Employment in Indiana’s flagship industries grew 1.35% over the past year, while employment in Michigan’s flagship industries grew 3.38%. Thus, even though the pace of growth in economic activity slowed in Indiana and Michigan in the second half of 2015, it was still a good year for both states.

6-Table 1

The story is more mixed for the states in the western part of the District (table 2). Machinery (and the fabricated metal producers who support them) has not faired well in the past year: Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin all saw notable declines in machinery and fabricated metal employment (with the exception of Wisconsin’s machinery employment, which was flat). However, Iowa and Wisconsin were helped by strong growth in other flagship industries (food products in both Iowa and Wisconsin and finance in Iowa). Illinois has few other flagship industries to help it, though it’s worth noting that Chicago has fared much better than downstate Illinois because of its concentration in business services and finance. Average employment growth for Illinois’s high-LQ industries was dismal (-2.04%), while growth was solid for Iowa’s (1.58%), and slow for Wisconsin’s (0.73%). Thus, although some flagship industries have done well in the western states in the District, the struggles of the machinery industry appear to have put quite a damper on their economic performance.

7-Table 2

So we see that the overall slowdown in the District in 2015 was not a shared experience across District states. The eastern states (Michigan and Indiana) did notably better than the western states (Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin) and these differences are relatively consistent with the performance of states’ flagship industries. What does the future hold for these flagship industries? At the moment, it’s hard to find much evidence that there will be a significant reversal of fortunes in 2016. The auto industry is likely to continue to benefit from steady growth in the U.S. economy and low gasoline prices, while the machinery industry is likely to continue to suffer from weaker global growth and depressed commodities prices (which hurt demand for both mining and agriculture machinery).

That said, while flagship industries certainly play an important role in a state’s economy because of all the related industries that support them, there are still many industries that are not closely related to them. For example, Iowa’s contribution to the MEI has been negative for most of 2015 (not shown), likely because of the struggles in the farming industry (see the Chicago Fed’s latest AgLetter for more details). The converging trends in the MEI (figure 5) suggest that these other factors are also making their presence known.

[1] The MEI is a weighted average of 129 Seventh District state and regional indicators measuring growth in nonfarm business activity from four broad sectors of the Midwest economy: manufacturing, construction and mining, services, and consumer spending.

[2] The PMIs included in the index are for Chicago, Iowa, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

[3] Data are not available for all 3-digit NAICS industries because there is not sufficient employment in some industries in some states for the BLS to be able to cover them accurately.

Illinois Fiscal Outlook – A Workshop Takeaway

Just how bleak is the long-term fiscal forecast for Illinois? And what are the possible solutions, if any, to the state’s financial troubles? These were among the challenging questions raised at the Illinois Fiscal Outlook Breakfast, held by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) on February 27, 2015.

The event was attended by about 75 people from various companies, government offices, and universities across Illinois. Richard Dye, Co-Director of the Fiscal Future Project (FFP) within IGPA, was the primary speaker. He presented IGPA’s latest report, “Apocalypse Now? The Consequences of Pay-Later Budgeting in Illinois: Updated Projections from IGPA’s Fiscal Futures Model,” released in January. Dye was joined by panelists Woods Bowman, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University, Laurence Msall, President of the Civic Federation, and Senator Daniel Biss of Illinois’s 9th Legislative District.

The primary goal of the FFP study is to assess total state spending using a model that investigates the long-run fiscal troubles and consequences of potential state choices. The model allows analysis of a longer term than previous studies have examined, projecting out through 2026. The study expands on previous research that has focused on general spending by assessing the state’s All Funds Budget. Moving funds around within fiscal years or transferring assignments across years can lead to variations in General Funds measurements. These distortions are eliminated using the more-encompassing All Funds Budget evaluation.

The Fiscal Futures Model focuses on the Structural Budget Gap, calculated as the difference between Total Sustainable Revenue (which excludes new borrowing, decreased fund balances, and other one-time sources) and Total Spending. Overall, the study presents a grim outlook for Illinois’s fiscal future. Dye and his colleagues found that the state has run a cash deficit consistently since 2001, contributing to a large and growing structural deficit. They predict that this deficit will remain at about $9 billion for fiscal years 2016 to 2022, reaching $14 billion by 2024 if existing laws and spending trends continue (see figure below). Given that the state’s projected total spending is $74 billion for fiscal year 2016, drastic cuts would have to be made in order to address the deficit. Furthermore, not all spending can be cut due in part to contractual obligations and because cutting other spending would increase unfunded liabilities or decrease revenue from federal matching, which means the possible solutions are limited.


The primary culprit in this large deficit, according to the FFP, is “pay-later budgeting,” which they define as “Illinois’s persistent practice of spending more than the inflow of taxes and other sustainable revenue can recover.” This essentially means borrowing based on IOUs or other liabilities in order to pay off the current deficit, thereby crowding out other spending. The largest contributors to these accumulated IOUs are unfunded pension liabilities, making up $106.5 billion of the $159 billion total sum. While there is a schedule to pay back some of these IOUs, others, including unfunded retiree health cost liabilities and unpaid bills, have no defined pay-back schedule. This will likely result in more crowding out of spending in the future. Adding to the state’s troubles is the fact that the temporary income tax increase implemented in 2011 expired on January 1, 2015. Spending, however, was not cut to sustainable levels in order to compensate for the reduced income tax revenue. The FFP predicts that Illinois tax revenue will drop $2 billion in fiscal year 2015, and $4 billion in fiscal year 2016, clearly exacerbating the state’s fiscal woes.

The study concludes that eliminating the $9 billion deficit will require either devastating cuts in discretionary spending, a 25% increase in state-controlled revenues, twice what would come from postponing the income tax rate cuts (see figure below), or some unpleasant combination of tax increases and cuts in spending.


Bowman followed up by highlighting three financial problems that cast a long shadow over Illinois’s fiscal troubles. The first, as previously emphasized by Dye, is the need for sustainable long-term pension funding. The second is legacy costs, which are the obligations to pay for services the state purchased in previous years. Finally, a new Governor and the potential for conflict between a Republican Governor and Democratic state legislature raise new uncertainty regarding feasible political options. Bowman suggested the state might consider a value-added tax, essentially a broad-based consumption tax, that could be relatively elastic with respect to income and act as a sustainable partial solution over time. He concluded with a proposal of placing a surcharge on certain fees, such as fees for license plates, as another temporary revenue enhancement.

Msall highlighted the bad trend by Illinois of failing to tie temporary revenues to temporary spending limits and the long-term harm this can have on the state’s deficit. The Civic Federation designed a Roadmap to lay out parameters of the state’s problems and potential solutions. However, given Governor Rauner’s budget and the drop in income tax revenue that set in on January 1, the goals laid out in the Roadmap, including fixing the fiscal cliff for fiscal year 2015 and controlling state spending, will not be reachable.

Msall suggested several possible strategies to reduce the state’s deficit, including retroactively postponing the completion of the income tax rollback. Specifically, the Civic Federation proposes retroactively increasing the income tax rate to 4.25% and 6.0% for individuals and corporations, respectively, as of January 1, 2015. The Roadmap then advises that Illinois roll back the rates to 4.0% and 5.6% for individuals and corporations, respectively, on January 1, 2018. Msall noted that of the 41 states that collect an income tax, only three, including Illinois, do not tax pension income. The Civic Federation sees this as a lost opportunity for additional state revenue and proposes implementing a tax on non-Social Security retirement income for individuals with over $50,000 in total income. The Civic Federation’s plan also supports eliminating the sales tax exemption for food and non-prescription drugs through fiscal year 2019 in order chip away at the deficit. To reduce the impact on low-income individuals, the Roadmap proposes expanding the earned income tax credit, from 10% of the federal credit to 15% by fiscal year 2018.

The widespread problems the state is facing spill over to affect local governments, including Chicago, Msall explained. Based on the current trend, the city may soon be forced to choose between not funding contributions, thereby violating pension laws, or increasing taxes, which would adversely affect the city’s appeal as a place to live. Given the city’s recent credit rating downgrade by Moody’s from Baa1 to Baa2, the choices ahead will be difficult.

State Senator Biss outlined the historical series of irresponsible fiscal decisions and policy actions that have dragged Illinois into its current fiscal deficit. He also highlighted an absence of meaningful spending cuts in Governor Rauner’s budget that would be necessary to compensate for the reduced revenue. Biss described a common problematic habit in electoral politics of searching for large overall fixes to problems the state faces in order to give the outward appearance of progress. This often results in attempts to reform the internal structure of the government in an effort to weed out waste and fraud, which often don’t actually contribute to the financial troubles as much as politicians proclaim. What Illinois needs instead, he said, is to find ways of creating more revenue or cutting actual expenditures.

The undetermined status of Senate Bill 0001, sponsored by Biss, among others, contributes to the current uncertainty about Illinois’s fiscal future. This Bill’s purpose is to implement pension reform that will create substantial budgetary savings and help Illinois make actuarially required payments that are in line with national actuarial standards. However, because the bill is currently under review by the Illinois Supreme Court, the actions available to the state government are unclear. Biss concluded that the only way to dig Illinois out of its deficit is to implement many small to medium changes across society, not necessarily evenly distributed, but carefully prioritized to have the most widespread and effective impact.  For example, Biss said a comprehensive pension reform package is imperative to maintaining the state’s ability to fund key areas of state government. He cautioned that portions of Governor Rauner’s budget unfairly target poor, working-class families by reducing funding to programs that benefit them, including Medicaid, foster care, and community colleges. Regardless of the actions the state does decide to take, the path forward will not be pleasant, he warned. But by committing to a “shared sacrifice” strategy of distributing cuts across the board, Illinois will hopefully be able to make steady progress out of the current fiscal trap.