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Make Illinois Great Again

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick

Paraphrasing President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign phrase, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (R) and State Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) were quoted in a Jan. 13, 2017, issue of Chicago Tribune that it was time to “Make Illinois Great Again.”  Is this bipartisan statement hope on the horizon or the light of train in a long tunnel is yet to be determined?

The 48-month budget impasse left the state with $111 billion debt in unpaid pensions and $10 billion in unpaid bills.  Operating on temporary funding bills, state agencies remained open but experienced massive cuts, layoffs, and resignations.  Forty-five percent of nonprofit organizations that provided state-supported services to vulnerable populations closed.  On New Year’s Day, all universities and state social service providers fear for their futures after state funding ran out.  Chicago Public School teachers were furloughed for three days for the spring semester due to lack of state financial support for its largest K-12 school system.  Without consensus, the pensions will remain unpaid.  Health care providers will remain unpaid and request full payment of services before seeing state employees.  Educators and social service providers are choosing between retaining their jobs with the possibility of a lower quality of life in retirement or joining the mass intelligencia exodus and restarting their lives.  The message from state leaders gives hope and continues fear.

The first signs of hope for conciliation began on 2016’s Election Night. Four Democratic House seats switched to Republican ones while the state Comptroller and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner appointee Leslie Munger (R – Joilet) was defeated by Democrat Suzanne Mendoza (Chicago), thereby making Mendoza the first Hispanic to be elected to statewide office. The results ended a near Democratic legislative supermajority and Republican control of the state’s expenditure policies. During a lame duck session, Senate President Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radagno (R- LaGrange) restarted negotiations to break the state’s two-year budget stalemate. The legislation was shelved because legislators did not have time to approve it. But the election and Senate efforts set a conciliatory tone among the legislature. But with the re-election of Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) to his 17th– term as Illinois Speaker of the House, many are concerned that it will be “Same As It Ever Was,” the title of an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune.

Serving since 1983, Madigan is now the longest-serving House state House speaker in American history. Many Illinoisans blame Madigan for the long-term pension crisis because of his length of tenure in both the state legislature and its speaker. Furthermore, Madigan wrote House rules. Likewise, many of the state’s budgetary problems are blamed for Rauner’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with the legislature’s leadership. Is it really the same? What is the source of the light, the sun or a train?

Madigan proposed to end the political divide between Rauner and himself. Madigan pledged to work with the Governor’s office and moderate Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago). As reported in the Chicago Tribune and PBS’s Chicago Tonight, Madigan proposed measures that are important to state Republican leaders such as a 50 percent corporate tax decrease while closing loopholes that allow Illinois-based businesses to escape paying income taxes or receive state tax incentives then leave Illinois. Per Rauner, these Republican proposals will increase job growth and retain Illinois businesses. Yet, Madigan remains committed to traditional state Democratic issues:  workers’ compensation, collective bargaining, increasing the minimum wage, and expanding earned income tax credits for low-income families.  Rauner is committed to establishing term limits for all elected positions, including legislative leadership ones. These positions could stymie conciliation.

The political and budgetary divide causes repercussions beyond the bridge building between the state party leadership. Sara Burnett, a reporter with the Springfield-based State Reporter Journal, wrote in August, 2016 that Illinois’ economy will enter a long recession where new taxes and/or draconian spending cuts are inevitable because of a lack of planning, depleted Rainy Day fund, budget gaps, pension crises, and the number of state citizens moving out of Illinois. Additional revenues would help state agencies stay afloat, replenish the Rainy Day fund, and end the pension crisis. In 2015, the Chicago area saw its first population decline in 25 years. A 2015 analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute shows the state suffered a net loss of almost 400,000 households with more than 855,000 citizens and $2.2 billion.  Persons moving to Illinois earn approximately $6,000 less than those who leave. With the layoff and termination of Illinois’ public sector employees, closure of nonprofit agencies, and its spillover onto private industries, Illinois is losing its stronger tax base to border and Southern states because of their more stable economies, lower taxes, and warmer weather. It leaves us, as public and nonprofit providers, wondering if we can help make Illinois, a state that gave us Lincoln and Obama, great again? When was it not? Do we have to choose between remaining committed to state public service or leaving it to save our pensions and psyche? Is the bipartisan conciliation rhetoric or commitment? Is the light shining on the train from the sun that we see? Are we blinded by the train’s headlight?

Only time can tell.

A PA Times columnist for the next six months, Dr. Vick writes about local and state issues impacting public agencies, particularly Illinois.  This article is a continuation of his December, 2016 report. Email: [email protected]

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