It's Time For Final Exams in Budget Deal-Making 101

Opinion by Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek

All over Illinois, it's cramming time. Finals time. Time for tests before the break.

In Springfield, too. Cramming time. Gov. Bruce Rauner reminded everyone Monday. We've got eight days left to get a deal done, he said. One week from Tuesday, the legislative session is supposed to end.

If it ends with no budget and reform deal approved and no school funding compromise worked out, it's quite likely some of our state's grade and high schools will not be opening in August.

It's possible some of our state colleges won't survive.

More of the people who take care of people in our state will lose their jobs. And the people they care for, obviously, will suffer. Human service agencies will close; humans will suffer, as many, many of them already are. Other businesses will close or decide not to locate here. More people will leave Chicago as its schools crumble.

After next Tuesday, getting a budget and changes to our business, government and tax system will require more votes. It will be much more difficult.

So, let's review what we've learned before the big government test in Illinois, shall we?

Chicago is the nation's only city among the 20 biggest that lost population, new data from the U.S. Census bureau show. And when the state's biggest city and the state itself loses people, there are fewer left to pay the tax bills and the bills rise.

At least four of the state's public universities have seen a drop in applications for the coming fall semester: Eastern, Western, University of Illinois-Springfield and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville all had fewer applicants. The University of Illinois, Illinois State University and one other saw an increase in applications, the Associated Press reported.

Alana Reinhardt decided to attend Eastern, the news service reported.

"Everyone shook their heads and laughed at me," she said. "They said, 'You're not going to have a school to go to next year.'"

If there's no budget and deal to freeze property taxes, change future pension earnings and workers' compensation laws in Illinois in the next week, schools in Farmington, Chicago and others around the state very well might not open in August. Dozens more, already struggling because they lack the local property wealth that helps fund them, will limp along at best.

John Asplund, superintendent of School District 265 in downstate Farmington, wrote a letter to his community in mid-April, warning residents that he'd heard the state does not intend to fund K-12 education in the year that starts July 1. That would mean a $4.7 million cut for his district.

Asplund wrote: "This would leave the district (along with almost every other downstate district) with some very difficult choices to make. If the state completely abandons its financial support for public schools, we may be forced to delay the start of school, operate on a reduced number of days, or completely shut down the school."

For the past 11 months, our state's college communities have suffered with no state aid. Our state's vulnerable children, seniors, homeless, disabled and abused have suffered because Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan are waging a political war.

Rauner insisted Monday that rank-and-file Democrats privately are supportive of changes to property taxes, pensions and workers' compensation rules. They know these deals do affect the budget and that such deals have been hammered out for years. The governor named suburban Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook as one who publicly has expressed support for a budget and other changes.

In a phone interview later, Nekritz said she's pointed out since 2009 that digging out of the state's fiscal debacle will require cuts plus revenue plus reforms. She's previously voted for workers' compensation changes, pension changes and property tax changes. Nekritz would not, however, speak for her colleagues when I asked if rank-and-file Democrats might rise up and press Madigan to compromise.

What will an end to this take? "Everybody, and I mean everybody, has to be willing to get together to get this done," she said. "People sitting down in good faith, and not pointing fingers, to make this happen."

Everybody means all of us, pressuring the politicians who are supposed to work for us to pressure Rauner, Madigan and the others to do their jobs. But we don't. Most of us go on with our busy lives, mostly unaffected by the crumbling institutions around us. That will change dramatically if schools don't open in August and thousands of parents are left scrambling.

It's cramming time. The finals are upon us. What have we learned?

Up next: Independent Map Amendment passes petition signature test, but battle is far from over