It’s as if the state of Illinois is having a morning-after. The endless party of the ’90s is over, and we’re waking to a very painful horizon. Deep cuts in state spending are certain; tax increases threatened. The news keeps getting worse. Projections show a 2003 budget shortfall estimated at $1.3 billion, a figure likely to rise.

Those of us in central Illinois know the stakes are high. Educational funding is a target. Zeller Mental Health Center in Peoria will close. Our cities may receive a smaller share of anticipated state income tax.

It’s clear rising state revenues in the past decade allowed lawmakers to take their eyes off runaway spending. Maybe they bought into the dot-com hype that the "new economy" would forever raise all boats. In any case, the mess reveals Illinois’ spending boom for the all-night party it really was. No one’s volunteering to clean up the mess.

Managers from outside the statehouse may be justified in telling lawmakers, "We told you so." But those who guide their private sector organizations through good times and bad have more to offer than our dismay at the looming crisis. It’s something every manager knows: Budget time is when you establish your priorities and assign the dollars to get them done. Without clearly identifying what’s most important, shifting money from column to column isn’t just a waste of time, it’s a recipe for disaster. In the current debate, priorities seem to be what’s lacking. Instead of a steady hand with the antidote for party-all-night spending, we’ve had scare tactics and a scattershot approach, exploited for election year advantage.

The possibility of closing state parks is a case in point. Closing parks wouldn’t dent the budget, permanently damage businesses that depend on the parks, and generate future costs when parks are reopened. Some legislators say the only way to cover the shortfall is to raise income and sales taxes. That’s like saying the only way to get over a hangover is to have another drink. We know where that leads. Again, any discussion of the priorities is neatly avoided.

These tactics do serve a purpose vital to many in Springfield: They distract the voting public from demanding a clear set of budget priorities. The resolve of some legislators seems to be firm. It was a relief to hear Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R., Wood Dale) say Republicans would oppose any increase in income or sales taxes "period."

Another ray of hope: Comptroller Dan Hynes announcing a moratorium on spending funds for the infamous "member initiatives." Hynes looked even better with recent revelations on where some of the money has been going—like House Speaker Mike Madigan’s diversion of $1.3 million to fund a private horse show.

There are plenty of easy targets in the fiscal landscape. But going straight to the details eliminates what may actually be a golden opportunity for a thorough discussion of what matters most in state spending.

So what is most important? In the interest of moving the debate beyond the morning after into the light of day, we offer this brief list—just three items—of budget priorities:

  1. Competitiveness. Revenue growth will only resume once Illinois business grows. Any action that detracts from business competitiveness will shrink the state’s revenues.
  2. Education. Units like District 150 in Peoria have been traumatized by the legislature’s actions—like the failure to pay its share of local funding, and transferring resources from downstate to well-healed collar counties. To suggest, as some have, that education could account for as much as $600 million in savings is dangerous.
  3. Basic services for those who need them most. Illinois’ recession is proving to be deeper and more persistent than appears to be the case elsewhere in the nation. Economic conditions are making millions of Illinoisans more vulnerable. Among the at-risk: patients at nursing homes funded by Medicaid, the disabled, the working poor, low income students. We must meet our obligations to these at-risk populations.

Just three priorities. That’s appropriate given the back-to-the-basics approach called for in this climate. After nearly a decade of high living, there’s no denying in Springfield that the party’s over.

Time to get priorities in order. IBI