Governor Snyder’s suspension of democracy in Michigan and his knowingly overseeing the mass-poisoning of the residents of Flint has rightfully occupied the media spotlight.
But proceeding far more quietly and largely under the radar of national media, first-year Governor Bruce Rauner has been steadily dismantling Illinois, creating a poisonous environment devastating Illinois’ citizens and threatening long-standing public institutions. His deleterious actions promise, like the Flint tragedy, to inflict long-term damage from which it may take years to recover.
Rauner has held the state and its citizens hostage without a budget since the start of the fiscal year last July 1, leaving unfunded crucial agencies that serve children, the elderly, the infirm, and the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in the state. Particularly symbolic of his inhumane approach to “serving the people,” Rauner cut funding to the Illinois Autism program during National Autism Month and on World Autism Day.
Even the Chicago Sun Times, which endorsed him, took him to task for his unprecedented inhumanity, moving beyond mere policy disagreement and instead, in a recent editorial, invoking “basic human decency” as the chief political criterion by which to evaluate his performance: “Children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled are being harmed. And it’s bad for business. People like to live and work in a place that demonstrates a commitment to basic human decency.”
Moreover, the states’ respected institutions of higher education have yet to receive their expected state appropriations, crippling them to the extent that not only their ability to fund the completion of this academic year but also their future existence are questionable prospects. Chicago State University has a declared a state of financial emergency and finds itself perhaps on the verge of shuttering its doors. Other institutions, in order to stave off closure, have begun laying off staff and even tenured faculty as well as depleting financial reserves the nation’s Higher Learning Commission requires be maintained at certain levels to meet accreditation standards.
Indeed, Barbara Gellman-Danley, President of the Higher Learning Commission, last February 4 sounded alarm bells reminding Rauner and other key legislators what accreditation entails and precisely how severe consequences of losing accreditation would be for the state’s universities:
“A criterion for accreditation is demonstration of the availability of financial, physical, and human resources necessary to provide quality higher education. HLC is aware that the colleges and universities in Illinois may need to suspend operations because financial resources from the state are not available.”
She continued in the letter that should a university lose accreditation, the process for restoring accreditation can take multiple years, during which time students attending the institution are not eligible to receive federal financial aid. Such an occurrence would likely sound the death knell for any university, driving down enrollments to such an extent that an institution could not financially survive.
Already Rauner has refused to fund the Monetary Award Program grants that provide financial aid to 125,000 of Illinois’ college students. Universities such as the one where I work, Northeastern Illinois University, have fronted this tuition-assistance to students from their reserves, hoping for re-imbursement when a budget is passed.
What accounts for Rauner’s behavior?
Well, he has been unwilling to engage the budget process until his ransom demands are met from the democratic majority to pass legislation curbing collective bargaining rights (hence weakening unions), imposing term limits (hence allowing the ousting of long-standing democratic leaders instead of letting voters choose), reforming worker compensation laws, and imposing right-to-work laws (which have led to more unemployment in Wisconsin under Walker’s rule), among other demands unrelated to the budget.
Sound familiar? It should. Rauner’s playbook isn’t his own. Rather he is simply falling in with the larger Republican national strategy we have seen Sam Brownback in Kansas, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Rick Snyder in Michigan, among other governors, pursue and implement to their citizenry’s detriment. The strategy is that articulated back in the day by Grover Norquist, namely that of “starving the beast,” the beast supposedly being government itself, although in reality the effect of this strategy is that the people are starved in Illinois, just as the people in Flint are poisoned. The impulse behind this strategy—or at least the looming prospect to result from it—is to destroy the public sphere, privatize all that can be privatized, and, of course, re-distribute wealth back to the wealthiest by cutting their taxes because there will be no public sphere to fund—and no sense of a public good.
When Jesse Jackson visited Northeastern Illinois University last January 25 to address Rauner’s all-out assault on Illinois’ college students, many of whom are wondering if they’dll be able to graduate and become productive citizens, he stressed that a “toxic wind” is blowing through Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. The poisoning of people in Flint in part resulted from Snyder trying to make up revenue he lost from the large tax cuts he gave to corporations and the rich and also from his suspension of democracy.
The children and families of Flint aren’t the only people being poisoned. The gutting of education, the cutting of programs that help end homelessness, care of the elderly, help provide childcare so parents can work, and the general erosion of investment in human welfare and development has created, indeed, what Jackson calls a toxic environment.
And meanwhile, Illinoisans continue to pay taxes, the monies of which are not disbursed to serve them. While Rauner claims to be protecting taxpayers in the state (like those who need education and social services), his policies seem intended to serve corporations, which for the most part do not pay taxes. Two-Thirds of corporations in the state PAY NO STATE TAXES!
While I’d like to see Rauner’s behavior as an ideological tantrum, it is too thought out for that. Clearly the project is an ideological one, not a rational or data-driven one. He simply wants to privatize all that he can and weaken unions. While he says he wants a business friendly state and touts himself as an economic leader based on his business bona fides, the political crisis and economic uncertainty his inhumane shenanigans have created in Illinois recently drove away GE, which was looking to relocate and decided against Illinois because of the climate of uncertainty. He also, in expressing his desire for Chicago Public Schools to declare bankruptcy, undermined the city’s effort to procure bond funding. The city did, but for much less and at a much higher interest rate, which will only hurt taxpayers in the long run.
As the New York Times reported, Rauner was backed in his gubernatorial run to the tune of millions by out-of-state interests, meaning Illinois is run by an absentee landlord with no regard for its people.
While he claims to want to make Illinois run on a responsible budget and to live within its means, he also refuses to seek new revenues. While he claims Illinoisans are already overburdened with taxes, the fact is that taxes in Illinois are far less than in the neighboring states of Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa. According to the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, if Illinois had the same tax structure as Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, the state would take in an additional 8 billion dollars each year, which would go a long way towards alleviating the state’s budget woes.
In our own households, most of us would not consider a responsible budget one that starves and under-educates our children. We would seek more revenue or take out loans.
Rauner’s answer, typical of Republicans, is social decay, not social development.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture. He lives in Chicago with his two sons.