Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Compromise is Not a Dirty Word

Good news drives out the bad easily when we let it.  There are so many things we wish would go away that we crave distraction.  And so the Cub’s post season play takes over our attention along with the Democratic Presidential Candidate debate and we in Illinois and Americans everywhere glide through the waning months of 2015 as if all were well.  Just six days ago there were not one but two more school shootings, and an outcry from the highest levels for increased gun control measures that swiftly faded.  In order to protect each other we have gladly taken our shoes off in airports for fifteen years because of a single and unsuccessful shoe bombing attempt, but yet we shrug off any suggestion of efforts to control gun violence no matter how many children are killed.  I digress.

Two weekends ago we got together with family on Sunday for a brunch in Bridgeport, a neighborhood in Chicago.  Folks were in from Florida we don’t often see so we used their visit as an occasion to eat and drink and talk.  Nice day.

I was interested in what we talked about, or I guess what we didn’t talk about.  Though most of us were from Illinois we didn’t talk about state politics.  The rise in Chicago property taxes was touched on briefly but nothing on the budget stalemate in Springfield.  If the school shooting in Oregon, gun control or the lack of it, was discussed I wasn’t in the room.

We did talk about Syrian refugees, mainly I think because a Bosnian couple, neighbors of our hosts, were there as guests.  There were refugees themselves once, and have a special feeling for people displaced by politics and violence.  That’s why it’s good for me to get out of the shack and talk to people. I get the benefit of different perspectives.

We talked about each other.  We talked a lot about the Cubs.  We talked about the food, family that weren’t there, when we saw each other last and when we’ll be together again.  Everyone has personal news, things going on in their lives, and we’re nosy enough to want to know all about it.  I’m not sure what we talked about, but we talked and talked and talked.  Hours of talking, three or four conversations at once, catching up, learning new things, hearing from ourselves the answers to questions about our own lives we so rarely put into words.  It was good.  You might go as far as to call it wonderful.  I not sure why we don’t do it more often.

But after I was home, and thought of what wasn’t said, I tried to answer this:  If we don’t talk about urgent and pressing problems to our closest family and friends, who do we talk to?  Our Face Book friends?  That’s not what I call a real conversation.

On the night of the lunar eclipse I had a rare conversation about state government with regular folks.  We were sitting around Weber grills talking about the recent departure of the head of the Illinois’ Department of Agriculture, a local farmer from Seneca.  He was summarily dismissed by Gov. Rauner for saying the wrong thing, which was most likely true.  I don’t know what it was, some say the reporting of attendance numbers at the fair, but the recently hired head of the state fair resigned in protest of his boss’s firing.  Shutting people up by essentially eliminating them is to me one of our new Governor’s least attractive qualities.  In any case, I mentioned that there was some controversy about going ahead full throttle with Illinois’ two state fairs, Springfield and DuQuoin, in the absence of a budget and one of my friend’s reacted by saying

“You can’t cancel the State Fair.  All those 4-H kids that work so hard all year?  Take the fair away from them?”

I appreciate my friend for a lot of things but especially for thinking of kids.  He and I are both involved with our local county fair.  I’m a volunteer judge and he works year round to organize the dog show portion of the 4-H fair.  We jokingly call him the superintendent of dogs.  He’s a retired (but still part time) educator and a smart guy.  That he thought of those 4-H kids right away is consistent with his values.  He’s a good guy.  I hope my answer didn’t offend him.

“We can’t cancel the State Fair but we can take away day care for thousands of Illinois preschool kids whose families are poor?  We take care of the 4-H kids but abandon low income families who used to qualify for day care help?”

Another friend chimed in, “If you cancelled the state fair there would be a big ruckus.  But take benefits away from poor people and you hear very little.  Either no one notices or no one cares.”

I refuse to believe no one cares about low income parents and their children although evidence of that being true abounds.  The conversation ended there.  We just looked at each other and moved on to other topics.  Really, what more can you say?  Even more difficult, what can you do?  We’re a long way from another election in Illinois.

Here’s how ere’s Hereit has gone down in Illinois.  90% of the activities Illinois funded last year continue, cobbled together without a budget by the two appropriation bills Rauner did approve, court orders, and consent decrees.  The remaining 10% is in “no budget limbo” meaning contracts were not issued, or spending for contracts issued is not authorized.  What’s not being paid?  The state supported activities that no one notices or no one cares about.  Or in other words, the things you can get away with politically.

Political leverage for a quick budget passage was severely compromised when state employees were paid on time and public schools payments issued.  With paychecks flowing and schools open, and various other state functions secured by court rulings, Illinois entered a protracted stalemate that allows my life and perhaps yours to be affected very little, while screwing the less fortunate.  There have been a few exceptions.

Rauner’s administration closed the Illinois State Museum (which I’ve been to) in Springfield and it’s four satellite locations along with the World Shooting and Recreation Center in Sparta operated by the Department of Natural Resources (which I didn’t know existed). In both cases he laid off the administrative staff, but continues to pay the unionized state employees working there pending a court decision and so saves little money.  It is estimated that the museum closing will amount to savings of maybe $400,000.  Chump change really when compared to this year’s deficit estimated at $5 Billion to $8 Billion dollars if we don’t raise taxes to their former level.  That’s billion with a B you know.  Each billion comes with 9 zeros. Want to see just one?  Unless you’re a hedge fund manager or a politician you aren’t used to seeing numbers this big.

Last year’s appropriations were about $66 Billion in Illinois, so a $5-8 Billion shortfall is a big problem, without even counting unpaid bills and all the fooling around the politicians do with numbers.  It’s all rather symbolic, the cuts and the rhetoric around them.  It’s a play for publicity and a ploy to influence opinion rather than an attempt to actual govern.  As the days go by and we don’t collect more income tax (you know, that temporary increase both parties allowed to expire January 1) the deficit just gets deeper.  Both sides know we need those taxes.  Who will get the blame for raising them is the only question remaining.  We’re watching a slow shutdown of state government.

I did check the sticker on my license plate when Jesse White said he was no longer mailing out expiration notices.  I have missed buying a new sticker before even when he does mail me the stuff.  But really, my life goes on relatively unaffected by the state budget.  How about yours?  You do realize don’t you that others are not so lucky.  After all, I’m on social security and about to be covered by Medicare, both federal programs.  Those who depend on the State of Illinois are the ones who are screwed.  In particular those that depend on that big fund in Illinois called the general fund that accounts for about $36 B of the $66 B Illinois spends.
State governments make public policy for their own citizens.  While they pass through a lot of federal money, about half their budget in most states for restricted purposes, states also decide how to spend their own tax revenue (which comes from state income tax, sales tax, gambling, and more) to fund and carry out those policies and fund priorities they create.  States have different problems. They spend their own dollars on public education, health care including mental health, public safety, child welfare and day care, social services, support for commerce and industry, agriculture, infrastructure improvements, state parks, all kinds of things, where they see fit.  It’s not fluff, this general fund spending.  On the contrary the general fund supports basic services that help keep the people of the state whole and healthy.  That spending improves and enhances the lives of Illinois’ citizens.  It’s government, and when it’s done right its good government.  The plan which carries out that spending is the annual budget.  Within it you can see the state’s priorities.

Illinois has not had a budget for over 100 days.  Who’s getting screwed because of that?  The people who depend on the activities the general fund supports which have not this year been granted a political pass.  That’s who.  Here’s a partial list:

·       Low income parents seeking day care
·       The mentally ill
·       Homeless and troubled youth
·       Drug addicts and alcoholics
·       The developmentally disabled
·       Seniors and handicapped persons benefitting from personal assistants
There are basic services needed and provided to vulnerable Illinois citizens that cannot be categorized as medical, fit under the rubric of health, and paid for by your health insurance policy, Medicare or Medicaid.  How and why did those services develop?  They developed because Illinois saw a need for them and appropriated money to fill those needs.  Do you see a pattern in that list?  Would you characterize any of those groups as connected, politically active, and vocal?  Many, perhaps most, of those Illinoisans are served by local not for profit agencies in your community whose mission is to help them.  They previously had grants and contracts, many held for thirty plus years, paid from general revenue funds that allowed them to carry on those activities.  Some of those organizations, especially those in rural areas without access to community foundations or significant corporate support, operate with budgets that are 90% or more state funded.  Last year’s payments, chronically late, have stopped dribbling in.  If your local agency is still open it has either spent from reserve funds or borrowed money to fund those activities since July 1.
In some cases besides not paying the agencies, the Rauner administration went out of its way to change eligibility requirements.  The low income families who last year could earn dollars up to a ceiling and still receive subsidized day care saw that ceiling drop by two thirds.  It is estimated that 90% of Illinois’ low income parents who received help paying for day care last year no longer qualify.  It was in legislative hearings about the effects of these emergency rule changes that Linda Satterfield of DHS was forced out of state government for telling the truth, suffering a fate similar to the Secretary of Agriculture.  Asked her opinion of what effect those changes would have she said “devastating.”  And that is pretty much the last word we’ve heard from Rauner’s people on that topic.

Illinois expanded its support for low income working families for a reason.  In 1995 Bill Clinton and Congress passed, with bi-partisan support, welfare reform which put a time limit on payments to low income mothers.  It worked.  Welfare rolls plummeted.  It worked in no small part because states like Illinois kept some of the savings they achieved through reduced welfare payments and invested them in sensible services like subsidized day care for working parents.  What do you suppose four months of a reversal of that policy has done to those families, some of them single parent families working minimum wage jobs?  Devastating is probably a fair word wouldn’t you say?
Few if any of these devastating measures have been reversed in the legislature.  Republicans have taken to voting present as a block, not wishing to vote no and appear unkind, which forces Democrats to take all the action, something they find impossible to do.  Politics won’t solve this I’m afraid.  Good government could.
Why have Illinois politicians put vulnerable Illinois citizens in this position?  Collective bargaining and term limits?  Future political control?  To advance one party at the expense of the other?  Really?  I think that’s shameful.  They should go into session next week and immediately do what is needed to take care of people who desperately need their government to act responsibly.  After they do, they can talk all they want.  I would tell them this if they would listen; talk till you’re blue in the face, beat each other up in the media, take polls, send out fliers, campaign all year, try to buy votes.  Go ahead.  Who cares?  We’ll decide your future when next we vote in any case.  But do none of that till you’ve passed a budget.  Not another word until you do your job.
Word has it Rauner and Madigan have not met since May.  Is that possible?  Surely they or their people are meeting behind closed doors and not telling us.  If they are I hope they are talking about things that really matter, like pension reform and an enlightened tax policy.  We deserve a very public discourse, so we can be better informed and thus smarter about whom we vote for next time.  But as for how to move forward, I suggest compromise.  Surely they remember compromise, that concept in which you get some of what you want but not everything.  You work to accomplish goals over time rather than insist it all happen immediately. Compromise does however requires listening, a certain amount of trust, and some faith.  All of those qualities appear to be in short supply in Springfield.
Compromise is not a dirty word.  It is a useful, even critical, strategy to employ when the plan you propose has components which are plainly non-starters.  Wholesale change to collective bargaining in Illinois is going nowhere, as are universal term limits, but I have an idea for a compromise that might work for the latter. Term limits for publicly elected officials have been talked about for many years and few governments embrace them.  But here’s one that could work.  Limit the number of years a single legislator can hold a leadership position-Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, Majority Whip, etc. which are determined by votes of their peers.  Limiting those terms would guarantee new people and new personalities regularly come into leadership.  It may sound small but that is a change that could shake up Springfield in a quiet but positive way.

I didn’t vote for Rauner but I didn’t think it was awful that Illinois changed governors. I like change. And while I didn’t agree with his approach to government and worried about his lack of experience in government, I thought Rauner was smart.  Turns out he’s just as pig headed as the rest.  Except for overdue and needed changes to Illinois’ criminal justice system, which enjoyed bi partisan support, his administration in its first year has accomplished little.  To the contrary, it is doing a lot of damage.  I guess it shows you don’t have to be a career politician to be unbending and inflexible.

What we need in Springfield and throughout Illinois are politicians of whatever background or experience who keep the best interests of the people they serve foremost in their mind.  I think neither Rauner nor our current legislative leaders are doing that.  I think both sides have another agenda.  I think we’re in big trouble in Illinois, and no one is leading us out of it.

We need a good week in Illinois government very soon. 

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