Illinois is facing a political and economic crisis, and the state’s political leaders, specifically Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, remain locked in a battle over the state budget that continues to paralyze Illinois and hurt their constituents. The situation in Illinois has deteriorated to the point that it has become comedic, as demonstrated by Jordan Klepper of The Daily Show in a piece poking fun at the state for it being temporarily forced to distribute IOUs to its lottery winners after the lack of a state budget froze funding for a wide variety of state services. While the lottery winners were perhaps the most visible victims of an impotent state government’s inability to pass a state budget, vital law enforcement and firefighting services, pension funds, and veterans homes have also languished.
The Chicago Tribune characterized the “impasse” as “a monumental state budget standoff that’s rooted in sharp ideological and political differences and aggravated by nostril-flaring contempt between Republican Rauner and Democratic critics, who view each other as not just wrong, but reckless.”
On one side of the conflict is Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, who has been a titan of Illinois politics for decades. He has served as Speaker of the House every year since 1983, with the exception of 1995-96, and has served as a State Representative since 1970. To some, Madigan represents the epitome of the status quo—a “corrupt” Democratic machine politician. He is backed by still-influential Illinois labor unions, a relatively united state-level Democratic Party with majorities in both houses, and by a populace prone to low expectations. On the other side of the conflict is first term Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, a millionaire businessman whose savvy campaign and promise of disrupting business as usual in the state capital launched him to a victory over the incumbent Pat Quinn in 2015.
Lying at the heart of the issue is a state pension fund crisis. In years past, politicians have chosen to forgo paying into the state pension funds in favor of spending on other programs, and have even borrowed from the funds themselves. The state of Illinois owes about $111 billion to its pensioners, but does not have the funds to pay them. The current state constitution prevents legislators from cutting the benefits owed to the pensioners, which complicates things considerably. For example, a potential pension bailout plan was passed under the previous administration, but it was knocked down by the State Supreme Court on constitutional grounds.
The situation has become a crisis because Rauner refuses to discuss tax increases until some of his proposed reforms are agreed to by the Democratically controlled General Assembly, and Democrats led by Madigan refuse to back down from the policies outlined in a budget that Rauner vetoed last year.
The United Way of Illinois released a budget impact survey on January 26, 2016 that gives an idea of how harmful the standoff has been for residents. Social services have been cut across the board in the effort to balance the state budget. According to a United Way survey, “85% of responding agencies statewide have cut the number of clients they serve.” The mentally ill and disabled have received the “deepest cuts,” and “cuts to programs serving seniors, children and adults seeking education or jobs have more than tripled since…July 2015.” School funding on all levels, from elementary schools to state universities, has fallen. In Chicago, the failure of state funds to assist an already deeply indebted school system has caused schools to cut programs, lay off teachers, and threatens to cause much more pain unless the crisis can be resolved quickly. Clearly, not only is the problem one of scope, but one that disproportionately harms the most vulnerable Illinoisans.
This is a conflict that transcends party, and cannot be blamed on a single individual: both men are complicit in a petty struggle of political will. Compromise, the obvious route towards a budget and functioning state government, has eluded the two men, and their actions have not suggested any interest in capitulation. Rich Miller of Crain’s Chicago Business characterized the battle in a November article as “the politics of win-at-all-costs,” and later as “the politics of ‘They’re the worst’”. The degree of blatant antagonism, lack of cooperation, and the length of the standoff has frustrated Illinoisans’ hopes for reform to a state that ranks 48th out of 50 states in the union on unfunded debt, via Truth In Accounting’s “State Data Lab” website.
In her article titled, “Illinois budget impasse creates a pipeline to deeper poverty,” Dahleen Glanton expresses much of the populace’s frustration with a political process that has devolved into personal attacks and lack of accountability for those involved.
“Many of us have reached the point where we don’t care which team wins; we just want the game to be over. Of course, neither Rauner nor Madigan will budge…In order to qualify for such a sadistic competition, both challengers had to possess unabashed stubbornness, a trait that renders one insensitive to the well-being of his constituents,” she writes.
It seems to many Illinoisans that what began as a political battle has devolved into a personal one, a dangerous “game” that hurts constituents. An October poll had Rauner’s approval below 35%, Madigan’s below 20%, and the General Assembly below 10%. It couldn’t be clearer that Illinoisans want and need these men to set aside their pride and compromise before the budget deadline of May 31. But perhaps finally we have an answer to what happens when an unstoppable force and an immovable object meet: the bystanders suffer.