Will it take shuttered schools to force a budget compromise in Illinois?

By Phil Ciciora 
U of I News Bureau

Christopher Z. Mooney is the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics on the Springfield campus. He spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the ongoing budgetary impasse in the state of Illinois.

The state of Illinois has gone almost a full year without a budget. Is there any precedent for what’s happening in state government right now?

There really is no precedent for this. Pennsylvania had a long standoff recently that was very similar in certain ways to what’s happening here in Illinois. They had a new Democratic governor and a majority Republican Legislature that were at loggerheads for nine or 10 months, but the governor eventually managed to compromise.

Before that, the longest time in the modern era of a state going without a budget was in Kentucky in the early 2000s. They went 296 days without one. And we’re well past that now in Illinois, with no end in sight.

So we’re in uncharted waters, which makes it difficult to get through the day-to-day operations of running the state. How do you keep food coming into the prisons when you can’t pay the vendors? How do you manage the inflow and outflow of state money when there’s no budget? That’s all tough, and the governor and the comptroller have done a commendable job of keeping the state afloat. But that still doesn’t change the fact that every day we’re spending more money than we’re taking in because of court orders, continuing appropriations, and the one piece of the fiscal year 2016 budget that the governor did sign, funding for K-12 education. That’s a big problem.

But finding a solution to a tough budget problem is not unprecedented. In fact, every state does this every year to some degree. There is almost always more demand for public services than there is revenue to pay for those services. So it’s always a question of what’s the most important and where can we find common ground, because we’re never going to have the government that everyone wants. But hopefully we’ll come to some sort of compromise – the same kind of compromise that happens every year in every other state in the union.

What happens if public schools don’t open in the fall?

That certainly would be a huge crisis and one that couldn’t be ignored by policymakers. But if there’s no money for public schools and they can’t open in the fall, I believe that would lead to the budget problem getting solved. What’s been needed all along is the motivation for legislators and the governor to make those very difficult choices and compromises regarding taxes and spending cuts. Typically, that’s how these things get done. Last year, the governor worked to eliminate some major pressure points, for example, by signing the appropriation bill for K-12 education. This year, the Legislature hasn’t sent him any budget at all – so far.

There’s also another possibility for a major crisis and pressure point in the near future. The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that state money can’t be spent without an appropriation. That ruling could apply to the salaries of public employees, if such a suit were brought to them. If so, this would result in state government grinding to a screeching halt. That would force the governor and the Legislature to solve the problem within days.

The Illinois House will be in continuous session throughout the summer. What does the historical track record suggest about that tactic – will it likely be productive, or is it mere window dressing?

There is definitely a certain public relations value for the House not to be seen as completely checking out during a time of crisis. They also want to be ready to act on legislation in the event that a deal is reached by the governor and the legislative leaders. A budget compromise could happen tomorrow, next week or a year from now. We don’t know when it will happen; we only know that it will happen at some point.

Is a stopgap budget that funds the state through the November election our best hope?

A stopgap budget may be the worst thing we could do, in that it allows the state to continue spending more than it takes in without coming to grips with the fundamental decisions that have to be made about taxes and spending.

And sometimes what seems like a temporary Band-Aid becomes reified as the final result. The stopgap budget they put together in April for the current fiscal year was not good for higher education, for example. If that becomes all the funding higher education receives for FY 2016, then that is going to cause serious hardship for universities and colleges. The same could be said for just about every social service provider the state works with. So it’s probably better for all concerned to knuckle down and make the choices that need to be made regarding spending and revenue as soon as possible.

The election is a separate issue. The idea that somehow things are going to be different after the election in November is overblown. I don’t think that the tenor in Springfield will be that much different post-election. Most legislators don’t have opponents in the November election. And once they’re re-elected, they’re probably not going to change their positions. In fact, their positions may become more intractable after what promises to be a bruising campaign season.

There’s always another election coming down the pike, and the next one, in 2018, will be a gubernatorial race. So the partisan rhetoric will be amplified even more. Waiting doesn’t make anything easier. Meanwhile, every day that goes by, the trust in state government – and our social safety net – continues to fray.

Read more: Morrissey ponders lawsuit over state budget
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