Past Due: Budget Address Short On Dreary Details

Feb 18, 2015

Credit Brian Mackey/WUIS

News Analysis - Gov. Bruce Rauner’s speech did little to convey the gravity of the cuts proposed in his budget plan.

Certainly, the governor talked about the dire budget situation the state is in.  And mentioned that tough choices would have to be made. He invoked Abraham Lincoln as he called upon lawmakers to think about the budget in a new way. “We make difficult choices that no one wants to make. It is what this occasion requires. And it’s what we were elected to do — make choices based on what’s best for the next generation, not the next election. This is our last, best chance to get our house in order.” Rauner’s budget seeks to close the state’s deficit of about $6 billion through cuts and without new revenues. He says he believes his concept, coupled with several business friendly reforms, will boost the state’s economy and make Illinois “compassionate and competitive.”

His speech focused on cuts to public employee benefits, public transit and the share of income tax that goes to local governments. That last item is always a controversial cut and mayors flock to Springfield to oppose it whenever it comes up. Rauner played it down by quantifying it as the percentage of their total revenue, which would be 3 percent, instead of the size of the reduction, which would mean cutting what the locals typically get by roughly half.

Rauner touted increased education spending in the form of General State Aid. He talked about waste and special interest groups and laid out ways to combat both. But what he did not talk about are the cuts he proposed to programs that serve children, the elderly, the poor and the disabled in Illinois. Rauner’s budget plan includes substantial cuts to:

  • The Department of Children and Family Services. It would also eliminate services for youth ages 18 to 21.
  • Community care for senior citizens.
  • Mental health services.
  • Addiction treatment. 
  • Dental Care for adults on Medicaid.
  • Support for children on ventilators. 

After the speech, Democratic lawmakers on budgeting committees decried the proposed cuts of state funding for the Arc of Illinois, a nonprofit that provides services to developmental disabled residents and their families, The Autism Project, a major statewide provider of services to Autistic Illinoisans, and programs for the epileptic. 

Rauner  wants to pump more into general funding for schools, but he is also making some cuts to education. The plan would zero out line items in the State Board of Education’s budget for:

  • Arts and foreign language
  • The Children’s Mental Health Partnership program
  • Advance placement courses
  • Regional Safe Schools, which offer education to students who are expelled or suspended.

In addition, he has proposed cutting state funding to higher education by about 30 percent—another cut his staff downplayed by conveying it as a percentage of the overall higher education budget instead of by the percentage reduction of funding.

All of this is not to say that Illinois should continue to fund these programs. California, a populous and Democratic-leaning state like Illinois, brought its budget mess in line, in part, by cutting social services and higher ed. And it makes political sense for Rauner not to mention any of these perhaps less than “compassionate” cuts in his budget address. But your average Illinoisan who heard today’s speech might reasonably believe that the budget can be fixed with relatively painless cuts that would fall upon “special interests” and the well-connected, and that is simply not true. He likened it to balancing a family checkbook and maybe having to say "no" to your kids on some things they want, but that becomes a lot more difficult when your kid has autism or is on a ventilator and needs medical care.

Hopefully, in the coming days and weeks, the governor will work to explain his plan, warts and all, to the people of the state. Preparing them for the cuts would be the compassionate thing to do, and it may also be the competitive thing to do for his proposal. If he doesn’t start explaining why he thinks his vision is the best way to restore our state, Democrats in the legislature will likely begin publicly dissecting his plan for him. And he is probably not going to like their take on it.