Pass a budget and move on.
If we have learned anything in the two years since the State of Illinois last had a budget, balanced or otherwise, it is that nothing matters more. A state without a budget is a state that falls apart, and the damage is lasting. Holding the budget hostage to other agendas, whatever their merit, puts the state’s priorities backward. It is irresponsible.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, we would hope, finally understands this. His first and only job in these last three weeks of the Legislature’s spring session is to make sure a full and balanced budget is passed. Everything else on his once-hefty pro-business reform agenda, including an overhaul of the state’s workers’ compensation system, pales in importance.
If no budget is passed and signed, Gov. Rauner will have to own the failure. He will have to explain to the voters, as he runs for re-election in 2018, why he felt it was more important to hold out for certain non-budgetary reforms even as our state’s backlog of bills reached $13 billion and public universities suffered mightily and social service providers went unpaid.
A governor must govern. He is the state’s chief executive officer. It falls to him, before all others, to do that most basic job of a CEO — get a budget done.
In making this point, we’re not dismissing the worthiness of parts of Rauner’s non-budget agenda, most of which he has taken off the table for now. We’re all for reforming how legislative districts are drawn, see the attraction of term limits for legislative leaders and support some changes in workers’ compensation law. But a governor has other forms of leverage at his disposal, beyond budget negotiations, to achieve such ends.
We also understand that Rauner walked into a bad situation, and his only aim has been to do his darnedest to set our state right. Long before Rauner arrived in Springfield, Illinois was struggling with a weak economy, alarmingly underfunded pensions, a backlog of bills and a political dynamic that for too long has put one Chicago pol, House Speaker Mike Madigan, at the center of every major decision.
We’re just saying that passing a budget matters a whole lot more. If that was not obvious to Rauner in 2015, or even a year ago, it should be now.
Whatever pro-business gains Illinois might have made by reforming workers’ comp law, for example, have been overwhelmed by the damage done to our state’s public universities by the lack of a state budget since 2014.
Every state university has been forced to make significant cuts to staff and programs. Worse yet, they never know if and when further state funding will come. They have laid off hundreds of employees, cut dozens of academic programs, and cut pay by imposing furloughs. University presidents say that many more talented high school graduates are choosing to go out of state for college — and may never return. Universities struggle to recruit and retain top professors.
From the outset, Rauner chose to use the budget process as leverage to enact his reform agenda, not understanding that he needed a state budget as much or more than Madigan did. He compounded his miscalculation by vilifying the Speaker. It’s tough to cut a deal with a guy once you’ve implied he’s corrupt.
The continued bad blood — or miserable miscommunication — continues. In late April, immediately after meeting in private for the first time in more than four months, Rauner and Madigan released jarringly conflicting statements. The governor, Madigan said, might be ready to “do one thing — pass a budget.” The Speaker, Rauner said, might be ready to pass a budget that includes “changes that fix our broken system.”
And so the game goes on.
Springfield is a swirl of budget negotiations now, especially in the Senate, where the willingness to compromise has always been most sincere. But it is impossible know what is real and what is theater, and the details of today’s negotiations may not matter tomorrow.
What matters is that Illinois pass a budget. All else is noise.