Christopher Z. Mooney is the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics on the Springfield campus. Mooney studies comparative U.S. state politics, with a special focus on state legislatures. He spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the ongoing state budget impasse.
Is there a precedent for such a high-stakes game of budgetary chicken in Illinois state government?
It has happened before. The state of Illinois was in a similar situation in 1991, 2007 and 2009, with 2007 being the closest analog for what’s happening right now. But even then, it didn’t seem that the two sides [then-Governor Rod Blagojevich and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan] were this far apart. In some sense, we’re moving into uncharted territory.
There is, however, precedent for high-stakes budgetary shutdowns in government in other places. Certainly, the federal government shutdown of 1996 and, to a lesser extent, a few shorter ones since then provide an example. It’s also happened in a few other states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota. So shutdowns do happen, but usually they’re only about spending.
Budgets are policy documents. Politicians can say anything they want to, but a budget requires them to put their money where their mouth is, as the old saying goes. What makes the current situation in Illinois unique is that Governor Rauner is negotiating over non-budgetary items. That makes it tough to compromise – and budget negotiations are typically the epitome of compromise.
For example, the governor wants to implement term limits. How do you compromise on term limits? It’s almost an all-or-nothing proposition. Same with redistricting reform and some of the other items on the governor’s agenda. These aren’t marginal changes. They’re very categorical compared to most budget discussions.
If they haven’t already, when will the average citizen of Illinois start to feel the effects of the budgetary impasse? Is a lack of urgency from voters a reason why the impasse has gone on as long as it has?
One thing that’s happened is that the governor has worked to minimize the sense of crisis by trying to mitigate or eliminate crisis points, like his signing of the K-12 budget bill so that the schools can open in August. This is unusual in these types of budget showdowns. Whether it’s a president or a governor, they usually crank up the crisis in order to gain leverage to bring people to the table. And when there’s the inevitable hue and cry from voters, that’s when the tough decisions get made. To bring policymakers to the point where they can accept inflicting the pain of budget cuts or a tax increase, you have to make the alternative pretty bad. Hence, the need for a crisis.
But so far, we haven’t seen much of a ramp-up in pressure from the governor. Usually it’s the governor who takes the lead in doing this. But by signing the K-12 education budget, the governor took away one pressure point. Through the comptroller and the courts, the governor also has engineered a way for state workers to get paid, thus eliminating another pressure point. So he’s basically gone in the opposite direction than is usually seen by chief executives in these crises: Rather than use the crisis to help force a deal, he’s defused the sense of crisis in order to string it out. I don’t know what his ultimate strategy is, but that’s what the governor seems to be doing.
Regardless, the people of Illinois will eventually feel the pain of not having a budget. The poor are already feeling it. If you’re receiving subsidies for child care, chances are you’ve felt it. The day-care providers may still be receiving payments from the state, but that’s only because the state is so behind on its bills that it is still spending FY15 money. But pretty soon that money is going to dry up, and without a budget, no FY16 money can be spent. And it won’t just be day-care providers who will feel the effects. It will be all of our social service agencies as well as companies that have vending contracts with the state, among many others. They’re getting their money now, but it will start petering out once the previous year’s bills are paid.
What is the endgame for both sides?
That’s the $6 billion question. The best hope is that both sides keep talking, but I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen.
The irony is that they’re not too far apart on the numbers. It’s the power struggle between Governor Rauner and Speaker Madigan that is no small part of this. They’re both trying to figure out how they can walk away winners. At this point, with both sides so firmly entrenched in their positions, what they have to do is find a path to make it a win-win for both sides.
What does that path look like? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows at this point. It’s a game of brinksmanship. Any decision that they make, though, there will be losers and there will be pain. But they have to engineer a way in which both sides can walk away and declare victory.