Editorial: Wake up, SIU! Take Action in the State Budget War

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On February 4, this writer discussed the importance of improving the quality of life for SIU student
Chris Wissmann

On February 4, this writer discussed the importance of improving the quality of life for SIU students in order to rebuild the university’s plunging enrollment. SIU once showed a strong commitment to bringing in major concerts and touring productions. During the last few years, however, the university has largely abdicated its role as the cultural engine for Southern Illinois, at least as mass numbers of students would demonstrate how they might define desirable entertainment— events large enough that they would fill the SIU Arena or even Shryock Auditorium.

Last week, this writer also debunked a few reasons that SIU administrators might give for no longer providing students with large-scale entertainment events, but glossed over the role of state funding. That, however, is a major issue that transcends support for the arts at SIU, and requires the separate treatment that follows.

Financial Holes and Political Conflicts

Illinois has massive debt primarily caused by decades of underfunding pensions that the state constitution mandates it pay. To right the ship without crippling state operations— road construction and repairs, public safety and corrections, education, natural resources, social services— will require significant tax increases.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, already vetoed most of the first budget that came his way— the notable exception was for primary-school funding— and it was not even close to balanced. The state is now some eight months into the fiscal year without having given many of its departments— notably higher education and human services— the authority to spend the money necessary to carry out their functions. And, frankly, it doesn’t have the money to spend in the first place— this fiscal year, state comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger estimates that Illinois has already racked up an additional $6.2 billion in debt and counting.

Rauner isn’t necessarily opposed to signing a budget or even a tax increase into law, but he has stated that he will veto any bills dealing with spending or revenue unless the General Assembly first passes his so-called Turnaround Agenda, which largely consists of crippling union rights in Illinois.

With a few exceptions, legislators from both parties are refusing to step up, despite the damage wrought in their own districts by their inaction.

Republicans are standing firm in Rauner’s pocket because of the billionaire governor’s promise/threat of campaign cash. Last May alone, he doled out $400,000 to compliant legislators. Even a renegade Democrat who has sided with Rauner, representative Ken Dunkin, just received a $500,000 contribution, believed to be the largest donation ever given for an Illinois primary— and that came from the Illinois Opportunity Project, a Republican political action committee. Earlier Dunkin benefitted from $240,000 in various forms of indirect support from IllinoisGO, a Super PAC rumored to serve as one of the governor’s fronts. Meanwhile, in what is widely believed to be retaliation by Rauner, Republican senator Sam McCann, who voted to strip some of the governor’s authority to conduct union negotiations, is facing a primary opponent who’s getting $325,000 in indirect support from Liberty Principles, a G.O.P. PAC.

Democrats have a numerical supermajority in the General Assembly and could override Rauner’s veto, but are scared to pass a responsible budget, because that will require unpopular tax increases in an election year with potentially well-funded Republican opposition ready to pounce on them.

University Suffering

Illinois’s budget impasse has caused SIU and everything else that’s funded by the state to circle the budgetary wagons. The issue is much larger than merely paying for concerts and lectures and festivals, of course— it involves student financial aid (especially Monetary Assistance Grants), general operating funds for the university (including professor and staff salaries), equipment purchases and building repairs.... Everything.

Luckily, SIU appears in good enough shape to keep open, for the time being anyway. The president of Eastern Illinois University, on the other hand, has openly wondered if that school has enough money to operate through the spring semester. He just sent out layoff notices to two-hundred civil-service employees to help keep his ship financially afloat. Unpaid furlough days are coming for others at EIU, and its president is talking about shutting down summer school.

EIU isn’t alone among major state schools that might need to close before the end of the fiscal year. Similar rumblings have come from Northern Illinois University. Chicago State has announced that it can’t afford to pay its employees after March 1 and that layoffs are coming soon. Western Illinois University laid off thirty professors.

John A. Logan College is in financial crisis despite a 25.9 percent increase in enrollment, totaling 878 more students than in fall 2015 (and it’s extremely unusual for enrollment to grow between fall and spring semesters). It may need to cut as much as $7 million from its $38 million budget, according to a WSIL report. Almost certainly, that will result in layoffs at Logan.

Those who can’t see similar scenarios quickly overtaking SIU are living in a delusional state that presents an immediate danger to themselves and others. Complacency is no longer an option for those who wish to keep their university jobs, or whose livelihoods rely on a healthy university.

Universal Suffering

The consequences of the budget standoff extend far beyond the state-university system. Police have had unfunded training sessions cancelled at a time when the public is demanding changes in the way law enforcement responds to minority communities and people with special needs, including the mentally ill. State museums, like the one in Whittington, have shut down, as have outdoor facilities like the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta. Teen REACH, Autism Project services, and senior-citizen Meals on Wheels programs have closed throughout Illinois, while many other social-service organizations are on their last legs.

A Serious Casualty: SIU Arts and Entertainment

The stakes for the future of Illinois are so extraordinarily high that musing about arts funding at SIU may seem shallow.

But as a publication that focuses on music and arts, it perhaps behooves Nightlife to highlight how the budget war is damaging the culture and therefore the economy of SIU and Carbondale.

To its credit, the university has found funding for some annual events, but whether others take place this spring and summer will depend on the General Assembly and the governor either coming to an agreement or one of them prevailing over the other. Meanwhile, we can all kiss goodbye major special events at the SIU Arena or Shryock Auditorium.

Imagine a summer semester without the Sunset Concerts.

Such concerns rise above the level of mere luxury when looking at the single biggest long-term crisis facing SIU— an almost twenty-five-year enrollment collapse. From its height of 21,999 in 1991, fall enrollment at SIU fell to 15,378 in 2015— a loss of more than thirty percent of the student body. The last time the university attracted so few students was in 1964, before SIU became Illinois’s cheapest and easiest way for young men to secure a deferment from the Vietnam War draft. And last week SIU announced that it suffered the loss of another 878 students compared to spring 2015.

Without a massive influx of highly qualified students, SIU will continue to lose the clout it needs to maintain funding for core educational missions, and it will fail to operate as the economic and cultural engine for Southern Illinois. Unless the SIU administration can successfully implement an Enrollment Turnaround Agenda, the university will collapse upon itself like a black hole, and suck Carbondale into the resulting abyss.

Investments that make SIU and Carbondale more exciting and vibrant to prospective students are essential to restoring the student body to anywhere near 1991 levels. Resurgent enrollment, in turn, will make sure that the university can justify to the General Assembly and governor fiscal appropriations necessary to pay the almost seven-thousand full-time equivalent personnel SIU employs— from carpenters and residence-hall cooks to professors and administrators, from librarians and computer technicians to groundskeepers and electricians.

Fixing a Hole

Those who feel strongly about the role of cultural and arts funding at SIU— or the budget war’s impact on the many other aspects of their lives— would do well to make sure that their elected officials hear demands that the General Assembly pass a budget.

Southern Illinois legislators include:

  • Sen. David S. Luechtefeld: (618) 243-9014
  • Rep. Terri Bryant: (618) 684-1100
  • Rep. Jerry F. Costello II: (618) 282-7284
  • Sen. Gary Forby: (618) 439-2504
  • Rep. John E. Bradley: (618) 997-9697
  • Rep. Brandon W. Phelps: (618) 253-4189

Visit <http://VoteSmart.org> to see who represents you.

Luechtefeld, incidentally, is preparing to retire, and Democrat Sheila Simon is well-positioned to succeed him. Bryant, however, is a vulnerable Republican whose voting record places her solidly behind Rauner and against the interests of her own district. As recently as January 28, she voted against a bill that would have funded university-student MAP grants and other higher-ed programs.

Bryant needs to know that the price of crossing Rauner is not political suicide— that instead, Bryant’s district will stand behind her against the onslaught that the governor will unleash against her and her constituents. That means that if Bryant supports a politically realistic budget or appropriations bill that Rauner opposes, even died-in-the-wool Democrats (including this writer) must reward her with their votes in November. And should she stay in the governor’s pocket, the district’s most loyal Republicans must cast their ballots for her opponent, Marsha Griffin.

Moreover, political campaign contributions must flow according to whether Bryant moves to end the stalemate. Few alarm bells will sound louder in Bryant’s ears than when people who made significant donations to her campaign two years ago start contributing to Griffin.

The other legislators listed above are Democrats who already are on board. They, however, need to be able to tell their party leadership, which has bottled up numerous appropriations bills in committees, about the pressure they’re getting from their constituents.

After that, Nightlife readers must make sure they are registered to vote— the November 8 election is coming up fast, and the March 15 primary even more quickly— and then they need to hold those officials and the candidates running against them accountable for their (in)actions.