Dear Gov. Rauner, Please Stop With The Slogans And Lead

OPINION

Amid the eight months of non-stop acrimony that preceded Gov. Bruce Rauner's 2016 Budget Address, it's easy to forget that -- almost exactly one year ago -- Rauner actually did offer a budget proposal for FY 2016.

At first glance, it appeared to be a document woven from fantasy. It contained $2.2 billion in "savings" from a pension plan that had virtually no chance of surviving a constitutional challenge. It proposed Medicaid cuts of more than $850 million, but those savings were derived largely from re-implementation of a slew of failed savings efforts from a major Medicaid reform law passed in 2012.

To maintain human services funding at FY 2015 levels would cost an estimated $5.7 billion in FY 2016. Rauner's budget called for $5 billion. Finding $700 million in cuts from this most sensitive of areas -- it covers services for the disabled, the elderly, the disadvantaged -- would be politically fraught and, as stories of real people suffering emerged, heartbreaking.

But on Feb. 18, 2015, Rauner's cuts-only budget felt like the opening move in a chess match that voters had scheduled when they elected their new governor. Back then, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were keenly aware that the state faced major fiscal hurdles. First up was a $1.6 billion shortfall in the FY 2015 budget. Looming larger, though, was a $6 billion gap between what it would take to maintain government services at 2015 levels and what the state would bring in during its first full budget year under income tax rates that had fallen by 25 percent on Jan. 1, 2015.

Illinois' anemic economy was either a cause or an effect of its state fiscal policy, but it was there regardless. By year's end, Illinois would be one of the few states to see its economy contract.

Illinois needed strong medicine and Rauner, the consummate deal-maker from the complicated and cutthroat private equity field, was the man chosen to get the deal done. A return to orderly, sensible government from a state best known for filling federal prisons with ex-governors was what Illinois needed most.

A year later, we're still waiting for that deal.

Orderly government? Please. The state's largest social services provider, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, in January cut 750 jobs and 30 programs because the state hasn't paid its bills. Businesses that longed for a stable tax and regulatory regime under a new administration instead have received tumult as the nearly 8-month-old budget impasse takes its toll on non-profits and higher education. (I urge you to spend a few minutes listening to small business owners and others tell their stories in this video from the Reboot Illinois/Small Business Advocacy Council town hall meeting last week.)

The Democrats who control the General Assembly aren't without fault, of course. House Speaker Michael Madigan's insistence that Rauner abandon "non-budget issues" -- workers' compensation reform, term limits and legislative redistricting reform among them -- in budget negotiations is laughable to those familiar with budget negotiations. Anything can be fair game when it comes to forging a budget deal.

And Rauner is absolutely correct that the budget the Democrats sent him last May was wildly out of balance. By his estimate, $4 billion out of balance.

But it wasn't that much more out of balance than Rauner's own budget proposal three months earlier. And the Democrats missed their mark by over-spending, not by concocting an imaginary $3 billion in pension and Medicaid savings.

Don't fall for Rauner's rhetoric if, in his second Budget Address, he tries to claim, again, that he vetoed all but one bill of the Democrats' budget because it was "unconstitutional." The Illinois Constitution does not call for the General Assembly to hand the governor a balanced budget. For the record, here is what the Illinois Constitution says about the budget:


The Governor shall prepare and submit to the General Assembly, at a time prescribed by law, a State budget for the ensuing fiscal year. The budget shall set forth the estimated balance of funds available for appropriation at the beginning of the fiscal year, the estimated receipts, and a plan for expenditures and obligations during the fiscal year of every department, authority, public corporation and quasi-public corporation of the State, every State college and university, and every other public agency created by the State, but not of units of local government or school districts. The budget shall also set forth the indebtedness and contingent liabilities of the State and such other information as may be required by law. Proposed expenditures shall not exceed funds estimated to be available for the fiscal year as shown in the budget.

(b) The General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State. Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year.

Had Rauner signed the Democrats' full budget as passed, we would have had a constitutional problem. In throwing out all but one of the 20 bills sent to him, Rauner rejected a chance to rewrite the budget to his liking -- and thus bring on full-bore negotiations -- in favor of a non-stop tour of ideological grandstanding.

I know as well as anyone that Rauner is looking at the long-term here. He believes that today's damage is for the greater good in years to come.

The problem is, today's damage matters. A student who has to put college plans on hold, even for a semester, because promised state financial aid was withdrawn has suffered a serious disruption. Families who lost vital services from LSSI and other private agencies are struggling with tomorrow, not some abstract future.

Too often during this budget crisis, Rauner has seemed tone deaf to the immediate and very real fears of middle- and lower-income Illinoisans who are bearing its brunt.

An example? Here's Rauner's reaction in January when asked about the plight of Chicago State University, which is on the verge of closing its doors next month if state funding doesn't arrive:

That's right. Maybe we should just take all that state funding and give it to Chicago State students so they can go to school somewhere else. A nice thought, unless you happen to be a Chicago State student in your second semester at the moment. Or if, like the majority of Chicago State students, you chose that school because it's close to where you live and you can afford it.

How about this response, governor: "I want to reassure the students of Chicago State that their education will not be interrupted." Would that be so difficult?

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Illinois can't afford much more fiscal dysfunction as state government flies on auto-pilot into ever higher reaches of debt and unpaid bills.

Early word in Springfield is that Rauner in his second Budget Address will reaffirm his commitment to increasing funding for early childhood and K-12 education. That's a laudable goal. Our children are our future.

And at the rate we're going, they'll need a solid K-12 education to achieve the high ACT scores necessary for colleges in states that have not run their public universities into the ground.

Please, governor, hold the slogans on Feb 17. The campaign ended on Nov. 5, 2014. You won. You're the leader now. Please lead.

Watch Rauner's FY2017 budget address live here at noon.

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