Time to End the Illinois Hostage Stand-Off

Illinois’s former Governor Edgar had it right months ago. Edgar characterized current Governor Rauner’s refusal to negotiate a budget until he wins concessions on his ideological policy agenda as “hostage taking.”

Governor Rauner’s plan all along has been to force opponents to agree to his “Turnaround Agenda” before he will agree to engage in the budget process, including ensuring the revenues needed for a responsible budget. He set that situation up by asking the Democrats in the General Assembly to allow the temporary 5% income tax to expire a year ago, when it could have been extended prior to his being sworn in as governor. Governor Rauner wanted to propose his own budget solution. His own budget solution last February was to announce that he would not even consider or negotiate revenue until he had won the Turnaround Agenda. 

In other words, as Governor Edgar disapprovingly noted, Governor Rauner announced that he had taken hostages. Infants, children, seniors, people with disabilities, students, victims of violence and many others in need of state services are all being held hostage to Governor Rauner’s no-revenue budget proposal.

Like most hostage-takers, Governor Rauner knew that if his demands were not met, at some point the hostages would have to begin to die, literally or figuratively. And, sure enough, the dying is underway. 

For months now, thousands of service providers have been making layoffs and reducing services because of the state not paying them for services rendered.  Last week the situation went to another level. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) announced late last week that, due solely to the state’s failure to pay over $6 million for services LSSI has rendered since last July, it is laying off 750 workers—43% of its workforce—and shutting down vital services for almost 5,000 people. The termination of these services—including residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health counseling, and help for homebound senior citizens—is not a consequence of a budget cut or a policy change; it is simply caused by the state’s failure to pay for services already rendered—one side keeping a contract, the other welching.    

LSSI, by all accounts, is an exemplary, responsible, low-overhead, values-driven provider of essential services to people deeply in need. LSSI partners with the state to implement state policies. But LSSI’s “partner” turned it into a hostage and let LSSI and the people it serves be casualties of the hostage stand-off. 

Another example: low-income students at the state’s public and private colleges and universities are dropping out of school by the thousands as the state fails to pay need-based student financial aid for which the students qualify and which they were promised. Many students cannot afford to start the second semester this month and are dropping out.Their schools “fronted” the grants in the first semester but cannot afford the millions of dollars it would cost to cover for the state again this semester.

All of these students are from low-income families, and virtually all of them are African American or Hispanic. They were following a dream of upward economic mobility through their own study and work—the American Dream. What kind of “Turnaround Agenda,” purportedly meant to strengthen Illinois’s economic picture, blocks the upward striving of low-income minority students and treats them as dispensable hostages?

In our form of government, the executive branch, led by the Governor, has the duty to “execute” state laws and policies—to govern. The Governor has decided instead that those laws and policies and the people they are meant to serve should be hostages.

Governor Rauner has every right to pursue a policy agenda, which he can do without abdicating his constitutional duty to govern. He can push his agenda through the legislative process. If he is forced to compromise because of political realities, then he can work to win more elections for people who agree with him. Through it all, however, he should have the sense of duty to govern. It is time to end the hostage stand-off and return to responsible governance.