"I've been to Springfield and the line they always tell me is, 'You know, small business, you guys are the backbone of our economy. You're the backbone of our state. Well, you want to know something? Your backbone's broken. And in order to stand up and fix this, you guys gotta stand up, get together and start talking..."
That statement from Victor Miceli, president of Des Plaines Office Equipment, pretty much summed up the feeling Wednesday at the Small Business Advocacy Council/Reboot Illinois mobilization town hall meeting at Roosevelt University.
For 90 minutes, business leaders, SBAC members and representatives of college student and non-profits spoke about their frustration with the current state budget impasse and, more importantly, their determination to get a message to Springfield that the budget crisis is slowly crushing small businesses and non-profits.
Notably absent from Wednesday's discussion was argument over the political issues that have kept Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic leaders of the general assembly -- House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton -- away from the bargaining table for eight months.
Instead, we heard consensus on two points:
- Rauner and his Democratic counterparts have deep philosophical differences on how the state should right its finances and, in turn, its economy
- Regardless of who may be right or wrong, they need to work something out. Now.
If you've been following the events in Springfield since May, you haven't heard those two points spoken of together.
Instead, we've heard why they never can be spoken of together.
Rauner says he won't negotiate any new taxes (which everyone in the room in Wednesday night agrees can't be avoided) until Democrats pass some items from his Turnaround Agenda. These include term limits, redistricting reform, lawsuit reform, workers' compensation reform and a freeze on property taxes.
Democrats say those items are not related to the budget. They won't debate them as conditions of working out a budget.
"This is ridiculous. Us as business owners we know," said Miceli. "We need to talk, we need to negotiate, we need to move forward. I wish our leaders in Springfield would take examples from us as business owners how to run a business and how to run a state."
Neli Vazquez Rowland, who runs the Safe Haven Foundation in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, which helps homeless people put their lives back together, described the domino effect she sees as other non-profits cut services because the state has stopped paying for them.
Amara Enyia, executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce on Chicago's west side, said lack of state funding to non-profits and day-care providers created a ripple effect for the small businesses in the Austin neighborhood. A parent who loses affordable day care risks losing a job, which means less money to spend at local businesses.
"It's not just the small businesses," she said. "There is an ecosystem that lives around the small businesses of which they are the core."
Ideology wasn't foremost on participants' minds. A functioning government was.
SBAC President Elliot Richardson made an impassioned plea for some hint of cooperation between the two sides in Springfield. The financial problems that grip Illinois didn't develop overnight, nor will they be solved in a single legislative session. But they'll never be addressed if the two sides don't speak.
"They owe it to us and the business owners and the non-profits in this state to at least try and to realize that politics is not a game for the small business owner on Main Street. Politics closes their business. Politics is not a game for the non-profits that lose their funding. It puts them out of business," Richardson said. "And what we're going to demand and get more stringent about demanding is an end to the nonsense. We've got lots of ideas how to get that done but none of those ideas go anywhere unless you've got people who want to listen, who want to govern, compromise and lead, and it's time for that in Springfield."
As frustrating as it is that Rauner, Madigan and Cullerton have refused to move from their oft-stated positions, it's even more frustrating to consider what they must confront whenever they do get around to budget-making.
"Do not confuse the problem of not having a budget with 'The Problem,' which is that we don't have as much revenue as we have in expenses...," said Mark Glennon, managing director of Ninth Street Advisors who blogs about Illinois government and finance at wirepoints.com. "We are not remotely close to having a solution at hand... It's going to take radical changes to fix this. We fundamentally have a model of government that is broken. We are not producing the jobs, revenue, the growth that we need to meet the obligations that we've made."
Currently, Illinois is on pace to spend about $6 billion more this year than the $32 billion it is expected to bring in. And that figure does not include higher education spending, which was $2 billion in FY 2015, and various other spending that has been on hold because there is no budget to authorize it.
"This is not a problem that just happened this year in Illinois. We have structural problems in this state. But what we need to expect is for our political leaders and our politicians to try to solve them... What we want is to stop the nonsense and for our legislators to do what they were elected to do," Richardson said. "The time is now to fix Illinois. We can come back. Other states have done it. This is the time right now."