May 13, 2016; Chicago Tribune

Illinois has now been without a state budget for more than 10 months, and it appears likely that it may remain a “budget-free” zone until after Election Day next November. For those who enjoy politics as a sport, Illinois is producing a great, long-running drama to savor. But for school superintendents, college presidents, social service providers, or anyone who has concern for those whose lives and futures are dependent on state funding, the situation can only be described as a nightmare. With a new and potentially budget-less fiscal year beginning on July 1st, the situation may get even worse.

What’s not in dispute is that Illinois’ fiscal situation is dire. The state has accumulated billions of dollars in unpaid bills. A temporary income tax increase that had been enacted to help deal with this situation was allowed to lapse, decreasing state funding accordingly. The state’s pension funds are seriously underfunded, and the state’s business and economic climate seems weak.

In the face of these challenges, Illinois’s government has been stalemated as Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled state legislature battle over deep philosophical differences. For Rauner, the state’s ills have resulted from a government that has interfered in the marketplace, resulting in a private sector that faces higher costs, produces fewer jobs, and ultimately results in the state not having enough money for the services it should be providing. His budget plan “includes changes to how workers are compensated for injuries on the job, a freeze on property taxes, and giving local governments the ability to limit collective bargaining and other benefits for union worker.”

Michael Madigan, State House Speaker, responded that his goal “is not to agree with the governor to use the government to bring down the wages and the standard of living of middle-class families, to send injured workers to the emergency room or to welfare or to continue to hurt the vulnerable in our society.”

While the standoff has forced organizations that contract with the state to scramble, the financial harm has not yet reached catastrophe. Both sides agreed to continue to fund K-12 education, so no school district has been forced to operate without state funding. A recent agreement provided some funding to the state’s colleges and universities, easing the impact of the budget freeze. Lastly, a bill that Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) said would give social service agencies “$700 million that would help them reduce their lines of credit [and] prevent future layoffs and agency closures” sits on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature.

But if you are running a social service agency or leading a school district, the continued deadlock’s challenges may not be able to wait until next November. After a year of coping by tapping reserves, drawing down lines of credit, fundraising where possible, and finding ways to reduce costs without harming services and programs, how do social service agencies that depend on state funding plan for the new year with no certainty about a state budget? How do school districts plan, not knowing if they again will be funded? Should programs be closed? Should staff be laid off? Can the risk of operating with no guaranteed source of funding be responsibly assumed? What do we do about the harm that we may be doing to those we serve? Cruel questions, indeed, but ones that cannot be avoided.

Hopefully, Illinois’s political leaders are thinking about these questions and the human cost of their struggle.—Martin Levine