Illinois Governor Takes Aim at Low-Income Residents in Budget Battle

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Illinois Governor Takes Aim at Low-Income Residents in Budget Battle

Teddy Wilson

Illinois legislators will be working overtime this summer: Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly are in a showdown with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner as he slashes social services that impact vulnerable populations across the state.

Illinois legislators will be working overtime this summer: Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly are in a showdown with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner as he slashes social services that impact vulnerable populations across the state.

Rauner and the Democratic leadership in the state legislature have had a public battle in the past few months about the best way to address a projected $4 billion revenue shortfall for the 2016 fiscal year. The impasse is over whether to address the shortfall through a combination of tax increases and budget cuts or through budget cuts alone.

Rauner’s budgetary goals include slashing funding for low-income immigrants in Illinois, HIV education, a statewide autism program, and some Medicaid coverage.

The agenda Rauner is promoting, “The Illinois Turnaround,” is a wish list of conservative economic reforms centered around fiscal austerity. These reforms include weakening workers’ compensation, limiting eligibility for unemployment benefits, and implementing tort reform.

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“Now, we’re going to have a rough summer,” Rauner said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “We’re going to have a rough coming weeks. ‘Cause these insiders will not give up their power easily. But we will not back down. We will not back down.”

Democrats have compared the governor’s negotiation tactics to those of disgraced and imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat.

“It is true that there have been certain actions taken by Gov. Rauner which clearly look like the things that were done by Rod Blagojevich when he was in office, and I just don’t think Illinois needs Rod Blagojevich back on the scene,” Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said during an interview with WGN-AM 720.

Rauner criticized Madigan for caring more about protecting the political power he as assimilated than getting things done. “Speaker Madigan has been the one constant in Illinois politics for more than 30 years. We have been driven into the ditch. You know what? The truth hurts, but you know what, the truth needs to be known,” Rauner said, reported the Chicago Tribune.

The governor has leveraged his own policy agenda against Democratic budget proposals, demanding a freeze on local property taxes and workers’ compensation reform be tied to any budget compromise. “Crisis creates opportunity. Crisis creates leverage to change … and we’ve got to use that leverage of the crisis to force structural change,” Rauner said during a meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board.

The General Assembly adjourned May 31, but members have less than a week before they will return to the legislative chamber. House lawmakers are returning to the state capitol on Thursday and state senators are returning June 9.

The recess is in part due to an expected public relations campaign by Rauner that is said to target Democratic lawmakers and win over public opinion.

“He made it clear that in the next few weeks he’s going to launch a multimillion (dollar) ad campaign designed to demonize those who are standing up for the middle class,” Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said, reported the Chicago Tribune.

The Rauner administration announced Tuesday a set of actions the administration says will save the state $400 million to begin balancing the budget; it will announce additional steps as they are finalized.

The administrative actions include closing five state museums and one or two juvenile correctional facilities.

Rauner has already used executive authority to suspend $26 million in social services and public health grants that affected programs in the Department of Human Services, Department of Health, and Department of Natural Resources. Rauner, who surprised many in 2014 by winning the governorship in a heavily Democratic state, aims to gut Illinois’ public transit system, slash $600 million from local government funds across the state, trim a medical relief fund for military service members, and decrease public funds for higher education.

Rauner’s austerity program does not include any tax increases on Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

Lawmakers will watch the calendar as two deadlines approach. A budget must be passed before the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) contract with the state expires that same day.

What isn’t clear is how far Rauner, who is holding public office for the first time, will take his hard-nose negotiating tactics in pushing forward with efforts to slash social programs that disproportionately impact the state’s low-income population.

“Well, the governor…made it clear that he is ready to dig in for the long haul, that he is not going to be, you know, forced into some short-term solution that is not good for the state in the long run. That was made clear,” Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) told the Chicago Tribune.