State Policymakers Battle over Doctrine While Real People Suffer

Submitted on Wed, 04/27/2016 - 09:59

John Bouman, Chair of the RBC Executive Committee and President of the Shriver Center, penned this piece for the Shriver Brief.

toy-soldiers-fb.jpgIt is the job of every state policymaker to consider and enact laws and policies that serve the greater good of their constituents. Yet earlier this week a New York Times editorialcalled out Illinois and Kansas as the leading examples of states where policymakers are doing harm instead of good. Illinois is in a record ten-month budget impasse that is eroding much of its educational and social services systems. Kansas, for its part, has deliberately blown up its revenue system, and thus also its schools and social services infrastructure. 

Governor Brownback has led Kansas into implementing the longtime dream of conservative free market zealots—lower state taxes that will supposedly stimulate business activity, which will in turn increase  state tax revenue. (George H.W. Bush called this “voodoo economics” when he was running against Ronald Reagan.) This economic theory has never succeeded in practice. Sure enough, Kansas is no exception. Reality has stubbornly rejected the doctrine, and Kansas is a mess. Governor Brownback’s Republican allies are increasingly restless as their districts suffer.

Governor Rauner’s approach has been a bit different. He argues that his policy agenda of eroding protections for workers and weakening organized labor will produce a business boom. And he asserts that this boom will drive an increase in state revenues to replace the lost income taxes he insisted on allowing to sunset. He has steadfastly demanded that Democrats enact his anti-labor agenda before he will negotiate with them on needed new state revenues. 

It is not clear whether Governor Rauner, like Governor Brownback, intends to damage the state’s social services infrastructure or whether he regards it as a regrettable but acceptable price to pay for forcing passage of his policy agenda. In either case, at this point, ten months into the budget impasse, Illinois is damaging its systems by default much as Kansas is damaging its systems apparently on purpose.            

Last week Illinois passed stopgap funding for its universities and two- and four-year colleges and their students, and Governor Rauner signed it. So Illinois has temporarily dodged that bullet, and perhaps the agreement on this legislation is a sign of progress towards a responsible budget. 

But there is much more damage being done. In January, the United Way of Illinois (UWI) surveyed444 social service providers throughout Illinois that rely on state funding, and nearly half of the agencies surveyed reported that they had to make cuts because of the impasse. Of those that were forced to make cuts, an overwhelming majority—85%—had to do so by scaling back on the number of clients they serve. For example, as of March, at least 3,200 homebound seniors had lost home-delivered hot meals statewide.

Service agencies have been forced to lay off many of their experienced and talented staff, perhaps never to get them back. Earlier this year, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI)—the largest social service provider in the state—announced it would cut 750 jobs, 43% of its workforce. All 29 agencies serving sexual assault survivors in Illinois have either instituted furloughs or left unfilled positions vacant—leaving survivors throughout the state without the services that are essential for their well-being. And at least 18 Teen REACH programs—which mentor, tutor and provide a safe place for at-risk children after school—have closed. Thousands of at-risk children and their families have thus lost critical after-school programming.

Much of this is permanent damage, not easily or perhaps ever remedied by an end to the budget impasse. Once a program has been dismantled—its staff reduced, its relationships with clients deteriorated, its sites closed, its cash reserves exhausted—it is incredibly difficult, expensive, and perhaps impossible to put it back together. And this can be said more broadly of the social service delivery system in Illinois; even once full funding has been restored, the State of Illinois won’t be able to simply flip a switch and return to business as usual.

Whether or not Governor Rauner intends it, whether or not he is as ideological as Governor Brownback, the emerging reality is that much damage is already done. Soon the question of whether Governor Rauner merely assigns a very low value to vital social services programs or is actively hostile to them will be solely academic.