Politics of extremism wins out in Springfield stalemate

budget cuts rally

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Protesters have rallied against state budget cuts proposed by Gov. Bruce Rauner that slash a wide range of social services. The budget expired three months ago, and there's no end in sight to the political stalemate.

It’s a striking parallel: a small group of extremist congressmen who would hold the federal budget hostage in order to defund Planned Parenthood, and an extremist governor who is holding up the state budget in order to defund the labor movement.

Neither of the hostage-takers can claim majority support for their demands. Americans back federal support for Planned Parenthood by a 2-to-1 margin, and most Illinois residents oppose the specifics of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “turnaround agenda.”

That’s why they’re forced to take hostages.

And let’s be clear: it’s Rauner who’s holding things up in Illinois. The basic outlines of a budget settlement have been clear for some time, with Rauner reportedly agreeing in private to a temporary 1 percent income tax hike—but not before his agenda to cripple the labor movement is enacted. That’s anathema to many Democrats, and he knows it. (And if they give in now, they know he’ll be back for more next year.)

The motivations of the hostage-takers are somewhat different. The small Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives manifests a quaintly American combination of deeply held conviction and grandstanding.

Rauner seems to be coming from his own peculiar experience in the business world. He’s not the type who runs a traditional business with the mission of serving its customers; if he were, he wouldn’t dream of embarking on a fiscal year without a budget. He’s the type who spends gobs of money to take over an operation—a struggling company, say, or the governor’s office —so he can order people around and institute dire cuts.

It works in the business world, if the goal is maximizing profits for a small number of investors, but it hasn’t seemed to work so well in state government. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be any endgame; the governor and his counterparts in the General Assembly seem to have hunkered down, waiting for the next election, perhaps.

At its core, both the congressmen and the governor are driven by extreme ideologies. For Rauner it’s about making Illinois “competitive,” based on a top-down view of prosperity, in which workers cost less and therefore businesses thrive. (The alternative view, which I’d say has greater basis in reality, is that businesses thrive when consumer demand rises.)

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute has shown that Rauner’s economic analysis is faulty. There’s a lag in economic recovery (but the state is catching up—and don’t let Rauner take credit for that), and there’s population loss, but these are due to complex factors. Average household state tax burden is lower than in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, or Kentucky. The main evidence for the state’s competitiveness shortfall consists of two casual, unscientific surveys of CEOs—but the states they rank as most competitive for “job creators” turn out to have higher unemployment rates, empirical evidence that their guesstimates are way off.

Crain’s Chicago Business, that hotbed of radicalism, came much closer to the truth a few years ago­­­—while the state’s taxes were on an upswing —when interviews with dozens of CEOs showed “Illinois is a better place to do business than surrounding states.”

“Illinois has more of what businesses need to thrive,” including an educated workforce, larger markets, more access to finance capital, and a better transportation system, Crain’s reported. And while the corporate income tax rate is relatively high, “when all taxes are figured in, [Illinois] has one of the lowest overall effective tax rates on new investment in the country.”

Rauner’s bizarre view of competitiveness was revealed in his budget proposal in February, when he offered hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts in higher education and mass transit, two critical factors for businesses considering expansion or relocation. Since then he’s unilaterally instituted dramatic cuts in childcare assistance and immigration services, both areas with clear payoffs in enhancing the workforce and boosting economic vitality.

With a patchwork of makeshift funding mechanisms, Rauner has adroitly avoided a state shutdown. He appears to have made a political calculation that the smartest way to pressure Democratic legislators—with the least potential political exposure for himself—is to go after the most vulnerable residents of the state.

According to the Responsible Budget Coalition, since July state funding has ceased for autism and epilepsy programs, afterschool violence prevention, heating assistance, college tuition assistance, substance abuse programs, domestic violence services, breast and cervical cancer screenings, prescription assistance for people with HIV/AIDS, and homeless services. Social agencies with long histories of serving Illinois communities are threatened, and some are closing.

And entirely separate from the budget stalemate, Rauner has rolled out administrative rule changes decimating the childcare assistance program, making in-home services for the elderly and disabled harder to get, and throwing more people off food stamps, public aid and Medicaid.

Rauner may not be a traditional politician, but when he talks about compassion—or when he talks about competitiveness —it’s just talk.