By CARL GREEN
Springfield, IL – Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first proposed state budget delivers on his promise to slash state funding for the middle class and the poor, even though it stands little or no chance of being enacted.
The Republican billionaire governor calls it ‘an honest path forward” and it indeed seems honest about its intention – cutting $6 billion, only from parts of the budget that benefit working people.
Senate President John Cullerton sums it up like this. “Gov. Rauner’s plan includes proposals that will undermine access to health services, child care, affordable college and retirement security for working- and middle-class families,” he said.
Tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy are left firmly intact.
Here are some of the lowlights:
- Pensions – Attacking the public employee pension problem with an even more draconian plan than the Legislature’s new law, which still awaits an Illinois Supreme Court decision on whether it is constitutional. Rauner would shift current employees on July 1 into a lower-tier classification set up for new hires, with much lower benefits. He claims it would be found constitutional and would save $2.2 billion a year – at the expense of public employees who thought they were in a guaranteed pension plan, even though the state government has refused to fully fund it for decades. A 401(k)-style option would be added.
- Medicaid – Cutting Medicaid by $1.5 billion a year by kicking more needy recipients out of the program and reducing payments to hospitals and nursing homes, which could make services more expensive for everyone else. Ironically enough, the plan relies on shifting people to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) program, which national Republicans are sworn to repeal. Does this mean Rauner will testify on behalf of Obamacare in Congress?
- Kids – Booting kids ages 18 through 21 from receiving help from the Department of Children and Family Services to save $167 million.
- Education – Cutting $387 million from Illinois’ state universities, which have already been suffering from budget neglect in recent years and are charging ever-higher tuition to make up for it.
- Co-payments – Carving another $655 million out of health care for state government and university employees in the form of higher co-payments and reduced benefits.
A FEW GOOD POINTS
A few of Rauner’s proposals don’t look so bad.
- Prisons – His plan would hire 473 more guards for state prisons to alleviate understaffing and overtime.
- Schools – Another $290 million would be added in support for public schools, plus $25 million for early childhood education.
THEN MORE PAIN
One proposal – reducing the diversion of gasoline tax and license fees from highway construction to mass transit – would hurt people dependent on bus or rail transportation but could also increase road construction work.
The plan includes ending $17.6 million in subsidies to reduce fares for students, the elderly and the disabled, cutting $127 million in matching funds to the Chicago-area Regional Transportation Authority, and cutting the Amtrak subsidy by $20 million to $26 million.
None of this may matter much, with Democratic majorities firmly in control of both the House and Senate. But whatever the Democrats come up with as an alternative will have to either win Rauner’s signature or an override of his veto – a far more difficult task than in recent years when the governor was a Democrat.
Influential state Rep. Jay Hoffman, the Democrat from Swansea who is chairman of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, spoke as if Rauner’s proposals don’t matter that much.
“The governor’s proposals are just that – proposals,” Hoffman said. “The Legislature will set to work on crafting a budget as we learn more about the details of the governor’s proposal. While I am committed to working with my colleagues to go line-by-line through the budget to eliminate waste and reduce spending, our priority must be protecting vital services and strengthening our middle class. That will take a balanced approach.
“Without a more balanced approach to crafting a budget that includes responsible spending, property taxes will skyrocket, public safety will be weakened and our most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, will be at risk of losing critical services.”
NO HELP FOR UNIONS
Rauner’s influence should not be underestimated. While he may not be able to dictate budget terms, he is moving swiftly to populate the government with highly paid ideologues from outside the state who will not do anything to help labor unions or the overall working populations.
Metro east labor leaders are already seeing this. Bill Thurston, president of the Southwestern Illinois Labor Council, offered an example at that group’s meeting last week. Some state help he was seeking for the Belleville Museum of Labor and Industry may be delayed or canceled because the people in state government he was working with on it have been fired and replaced by anti-union people.
“I don’t know how that’s going to come out. They fired everybody I had up there,” he said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to get it going.”
Dale Stewart, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council, told the group at its meeting this month that Rauner is trying to use appointments to remake the state government.
“Any place he can appoint somebody, that person isn’t going to support what we do,” Stewart said.
And as Rauner brings in anti-union staff members from out of state, Illinois taxpayers have to pay ever-higher salaries for them. Here are a few examples:
- Up 24 percent – Olin “Trey” Childress III from Georgia is the deputy governor, earning $198,000, up from $150,000 that his predecessor made, a 24 percent increase.
- Up 51 percent – Aaron Winters, deputy chief of staff for policy, makes $138,000, up 51 from his predecessor.
- Up 38 percent – Mike Zolnierowicz, chief of staff and former deputy campaign manager, will make $180,000, up 38 percent over the last chief of staff.
- Up 94 percent – Holly Griff, Rauner’s longtime executive assistant, is making $138,000 – up a whopping 94 percent from the aide to former Gov. Pat Quinn who performed the same duties.