Illinois a State Divided; Its Residents the Solution for Unity

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Despite the recent thaw in the Springfield Stalemate, Illinois government still has significant challenges in earning the confidence of its constituents. That was my major take-away after attending a program last week sponsored by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) titled “Illinois: A State Divided?

ICPR assembled an impressive panel representing Illinois’ demographic diversity, academia, business interests, and the media. This included:



Dr. Jackson led off with a distillation of polling data underlining the program’s theme. Illinois voters’ assessment of whether the country is on the right or wrong track is tied to geography, with Chicagoans (22%) least likely to answer in the affirmative, and suburban (28%) and downstate voters slightly and significantly (43%) more positive, respectively.

By comparison, voters are universally negative about the state of the state, with only 9% claiming Illinois is on the right track and little regional variation. However, while only one-third of Chicagoans feel that the city is on the right track, a majority of suburbanites (58%) and downstate residents (56%) are pleased with the direction of local affairs.

More generally, Illinois voters feel that state government does not represent the values of their community well (53%). Seventy percent claim that state government does not consider their community’s opinions when making decisions. And 62% believe that state government resources are poorly distributed across the state.

Rebuilding shattered confidence in state government will take time, and perhaps begins with greater accessibility of elected officials beyond campaign season, according to Karen Ford.

Celina Villanueva lamented the assumption among residents that political corruption is universal, and Tom Bevan said the only state comparable to Illinois is New Jersey which has its own legacy of corruption and deeply unpopular governor.

Todd Maisch is struck by the lack of state pride in comparison to our neighboring states, and shared his disappointment that the budget impasse ended without structural reforms that would allow Illinois to exit a cycle of budget deficits, tax increases, and anemic economic growth.

Looking ahead, Ford sized up a gubernatorial field dominated by wealthy white men willing to open their pocket books and likely to break national campaign spending records over the next sixteen months. But Bevan cautioned that money is less consequential in an era of tribal politics where people get their news in partisan echo chambers.

If there is hope on the horizon, it lies in the hands of Illinois residents who must demand more of elected officials and re-enter a mostly-vacated public arena. Illinois is a deeply divided state, and our political leaders, parties, media, and interest groups are contributing factors. Unity, achieved through deliberation and compromise, falls to us, the fair residents of the Land of Lincoln.

Thaw in Springfield Stalemate Welcome, but Illinois Remains in State of Financial Crisis

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Illinois’ long-simmering budget impasse ended rather abruptly last week when both bodies of the Illinois General Assembly overrode Governor Rauner’s veto. The compromise agreement contained a mix of painful medicine in the form of budget cuts and tax increases.

These doses were delivered by a bi-partisan supermajority, where one Republican Senator and ten Representatives (originally fifteen) broke with the Governor and “voted their district.” It was no coincidence that many of these individuals hail from districts that house state universities, institutions that have suffered alongside social service agencies for too long.

The human carnage of the past two years is real, and last week’s mutiny triggered changes at the top of the Republican Party, beginning with the resignation of respected Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, followed by a request for House Republican Floor Leader Steve Andersson to step aside in light of his “yea” vote, and culminating with a major shake-up of Governor Rauner’s staff.

By Yinan Chen (www.goodfreephotos.com (gallery, image)) [Public domain or Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While state operations may soon resume some sense of normality, major issues remain unresolved, including whether public schools will be funded for the fall. The budget agreement authorized appropriations to K-12 schools contingent on companion legislation creating an evidence-based funding model. It exists in the form of Senate Bill 1, but the Governor has vowed to veto it upon arrival given what he deems as overly generous funding for Chicago Public Schools.

The Governor has the option of a line-item veto, but Speaker Madigan considers this tactic constitutionally dubious, leading to a likely dead end. Rauner may instead use this school funding bill as a final point of political leverage to exact business-friendly reforms from his Turnaround Agenda, including changes to the state’s worker’s compensation system and property tax relief.

Also looming is the state’s underfunded pension system that’s at least $130 billion in arrears. Previous changes were deemed unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court, but legislation that would produce “consideration,” where a retiree could choose whether or not to count future pay raises in exchange for lower or higher pensions, respectively, has gained bi-partisan traction and may withstand judicial scrutiny.

In the short-term, while the state has resumed its required contributions to the pension system after an inexcusable hiatus, the recent budget agreement altered assumptions and actually cut back contributions. This has real consequences for looming payments poised to consume an ever larger percentage of the state budget.

Taken together, last week’s progress is a Pyrrhic victory in the long-term battle to restore Illinois’ fiscal health. A balanced budget provides necessary life support, but our sick state remains in intensive care.