Illinois Issues: Top Stories Of 2015

Dec 23, 2015

Illinois got a new governor in 2015 but not a budget. In terms of state government, a lot has—and hasn’t — happened in the past year.

The New Guy

Wealthy investor Bruce Rauner was sworn into office in January. He is the state’s first Republican governor in well over a decade, and the office is his first job in politics. 

There were plenty of questions in those early days. What kind of leader would Rauner be? What are his top priorities? And how would the change affect the business of state government, including those who work within it and those who work to influence it?  Amanda Vinicky explored these questions in a pair of stories for Illinois Issues:

No. 42—What Will Bruce Rauner Do?

Power Players – Who’s In And Who’s Out When It Comes To Lobbying The New Governor

Campaign Cash

Rauner spent a record $65 million to become governor — a big chunk of that was his own money. Since taking office, he has set aside millions more in a political action committee with the expressed purpose of furthering the governor’s legislative agenda. St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter Kevin McDermott took at how Rauner’s cash carried the atmosphere of campaign season into the spring legislative session.

The Governor’s Money

A nearly successful campaign, funded by a few lawyers and law firms, to unseat an Illinois Supreme court justice put a renewed focus on the money in judicial races.  Illinois Issues unraveled the details of the complicated case:

Supreme Tort: The Campaign To Fire Justice Lloyd Karmeier

Rauner V. Labor

After taking office, Gov. Rauner soon locked horns with legislative Democrats and one of their most consistent political backers, public employee unions. Brian Mackey looked at the role of unions in the state, and the way Rauner has attempted to use social services as a wedge to push Democrats toward his anti-union, pro-business agenda:

Illinois Labor – Its Historic Rise And Gradual Fall

The Social Cost Of Rauner V. Labor

Chicago hosted the Labor Party’s first national convention, where this photograph was taken on November 22, 1919.
Credit Library of Congress
Budget Winners And Losers
Credit Charles Williams

Despite the lack of a budget in 2015, court orders and required spending kept most of state government at least somewhat operational.  However, money is not flowing to higher education and some social services. Mental health care, treatment for addiction and programs that benefit the elderly and disabled were hit especially hard by the situation. This story focuses in on the elimination of a grant that helped cover the cost of psychiatric care for the poor:

Mental Health Care Cuts Threaten Access

Credit Donnie Nunnley

Rauner took some controversial cost-saving measures that he later reversed after it seemed likely the legislature would vote to overturn his actions. The most high profile of these actions were Rauner’s severe tightening of eligibility requirement for subsidized child care, and his later partial reversal of the policy.  Maureen Foertsch McKinney kept tabs on the story for Illinois Issues:

The Battle Over Child Care Cuts

Big Problems Persist

 In the spring, the Illinois Supreme Court tossed out a law that sought to address the state’s serious underfunding of its pension system by reducing benefits for public workers and retirees.  Since that ruling, no other plan to address the Illinois’ unfunded pension liability has been put in place, and the debt has grown to $111 billion.

Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the legality of Tier II, the less expensive retirement plan for employees hired after 2011. These two pieces look at what the future could hold for both of the state’s pension systems:

Court Rules Against Pension Plan - What To Do Now? 

The Next Pension Time Bomb

Credit Flickr user: dcJohn

With the lack of a state budget and the conflict between Rauner and Democratic leaders taking up the spotlight, the push to reform the state’s woefully inequitable system for funding K-12 education has lost momentum. Education Desk reporter Dusty Rhodes looked at the equity issue through the lens of school fundraising efforts:

Now A Necessity

What's Next?

It’s clear that Illinois will not be getting a spending plan for Christmas this year. Lawmakers will return for session in January. But their schedule for the first few months is sparse, as those running for reelection will be campaigning in their districts before the March primary.

Meanwhile, Rauner is scheduled to present his budget plan for next fiscal year in February. But there is no guarantee that he will have signed a budget for the current fiscal year before that time. At this point, there is no clear path or timeline for agreement. Earlier this year, Illinois Issues columnist Charlie Wheeler proposed a way out of the gridlock:  

Give And Take

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.