A hard governor sounds a loud alarm

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If we thought Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first proposed state budget stood a chance of becoming reality, we would be appalled.

Talk about cold. Rauner wants to eviscerate dozens of programs that serve the poorest and most defenseless among us.

C’mon, cutting tuition aid to orphans?


But the governor’s fiscal year 2016 budget has zero chance of being passed into law by the Illinois General Assembly, as he well knows. Its real value then, which we’d like to believe is by design, is to sound the alarm like never before that Illinois is sliding fast toward becoming an economic backwater, a failed state among the 50 states. Time is running out. Hard and painful measures must be taken now.

If Rauner’s draconian plan has achieved that much, we’d say it’s about time.

The Illinois General Assembly — or at least the Democrats who run the joint — hate this budget, and so should we all. Even a half-broke state does not turn its back on its most basic moral responsibilities. But now it is the Legislature’s turn to respond with a budget plan of its own, one that we hope will strike a more balanced approach to spending and taxation.

Following that, we would expect to see a hard but healthy give-and-take, like nothing we  have seen in decades, between the executive and legislative branches. And, in the end, Illinois might finally settle on a long-term spending and revenue plan that puts the state on a path toward solvency and growth for decades to come.

Hey, we can hope.

Truth is, though, we’re still trying to figure Rauner out. Is our new governor a rigid ideologue, dead set on destroying unions, shrinking government and eschewing taxes come what may? Or is he a pragmatic man of business, ready and able to compromise, though prepared to be unpopular for the greater good?

In other words, where’s the man coming from with this budget?

To accept Rauner’s spending plan at face value is to say that state government has few responsibilities beyond promoting public safety and providing for the education of children — and damn near little of that.

The governor would cut funding to higher education by 31 percent. He would cut money to special education. He would cut Medicaid reimbursement rates, though Illinois already has one of the lowest rates in the country. He would cut funeral and burial services for the poor. He would cut homeless youth services. He would cut heroin treatment services. He would cut the budget of the Department of Children and Family Services, which — as we wrote in an editorial just this week — is struggling as it is to come to the aid of thousands of abused and neglected children.

Two proposed cuts in particular show just how damaging Rauner’s budget would be to people — and governments — that already are hurting.

Rauner would cut state services for former foster care children who have passed the age of 18. Anybody who works in the field of child welfare will tell you that is nuts.

It’s “just plain cruel,” Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, told the Sun-Times. “If you want to increase homelessness and suffering, abandoning them at age 18 is a good place to start.”

And Rauner would cut by half the share of the state’s income tax that is forked over to local governments. For Chicago, a city already swimming in red ink, that would mean a loss in revenue of $135 million a year.

“I’m not sure Gov. Rauner understands the effect this proposal will have on local governments,” said Orland Park Mayor Daniel J. McLaughlin, chairman of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. “These are real decisions that will impact the everyday lives of our citizens.  They’re not just moving commas in a ledger like they may be doing in Springfield.”

In his budget speech Wednesday, Rauner offered little to nothing in the way of increasing revenues, saying, “Before revenue can be discussed, reform is essential.” But he should have said more. More revenue will be necessary, as even the buttoned-down Civic Federation emphasized this week, and the governor is shirking his responsibility by leaving it to the Legislature to take the first step on taxes.

Give Gov. Rauner his due. He’s made it clearer than ever the house is on fire. But there are better ways to put the fire out.

Now the fire hose passes to House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. Let’s see what they’ve got.

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