By TESA GLASS
MT. VERNON — —
Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka called Jefferson County a "bright spot" when it comes to working together to improve economic development and businesses.
"By and large, you are doing it right," Topinka said during a legislative luncheon sponsored by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. However, the state isn't doing it right, Topinka said.
"When you look at the fiscal problems, it's a mess, and we're still suffering from the effects of the recession," Topinka said. "Folks like you are holding your area together, and the state is being held together with baling wire and bubble gum."
Topinka also characterized the state finances as "a total disaster."
"I checked this morning, and as of today, the state has $194,472 in unpaid bills that just came into the comptroller's office," Topinka said. "There is another $7.5 billion owed, and the backlog exceeds $9 billion. That's billion with a 'b.' Our debt is more than the economy of some countries."
Topinka said the Legislature will have to deal with the pension crisis before things get better.
"It's official, the pension system is now the worst in the country," Topinka reported. "We are now 50 out of 50. We are $97 billion in the red and that is growing at a rate of $17 million per day."
Topinka said she predicted the state would have a hard time dealing with the past actions of the Rod Blagojevich administration, which has proved correct.
"This state continues to pay for Rod Blagojevich being the governor," Topinka said. "Just today, the (Securities and Exchange Commission) said Illinois broke the law in not talking about the pension system and what its holdings were and it was misreported."
Topinka said the second thing the Legislature needs to address before the state can recover fiscally is its propensity to continue to borrow money for short-term debt.
"Our bond rating with Standard & Poor has been lowered again," Topinka said. "That's 12 downgrades in the last four years. That has to be a record or something. It will be lowered again if we don't fix the pension system. ... When the Legislature borrows to pay bills, and do short term borrowing, it affects our bond rating. ... Some of the Legislature want to borrow again and pay our bills. You don't pay off one credit card with another credit card, you learn that running a household or running a small business. ... If you are drowning in debt and interest, you don't use more debt to get out of it."
Topinka said the business climate at this time is also at an all-time low due to uncertainty with the pension liability, the bond rating and the so-called "temporary" income tax that was supposed to be used for paying outstanding state bills.
"I'm sure it comes to no surprise the uncertainty is not exactly an initiative for business," Topinka said. "Why would a company want to set up shop in a state that can't pay its bills. ... When it comes to the income tax, not a dollar was used to pay bills. It went to the pension liability."
Topinka said she believes the key to fixing the state fiscally is to help businesses.
"We have to finally get government off the back of business so they can grow, create jobs and better the economy again. ... Everyone must count on economic growth to outpace spending. That's what could dig us out of it. But, that won't happen overnight."
Topinka urged people to keep in contact with their legislators in Springfield.
"We can only change the culture in Springfield by ... demanding a different approach," Topinka said. "Reach out to legislators, your representatives. They will react to your votes. Persistence pays off, the greasy wheel gets heard. ... Don't be discouraged. We can change the state, but it will take work. And, if we stand together, we can make it happen."