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With the state legislature in a budget deadlock against the governor, the scent of blood has floated
Chris Wissmann

With the state legislature in a budget deadlock against the governor, the scent of blood has floated in the water for awhile now without any mass casualties for Southern Illinois. Last week, however, the piranha finally smelled it, and the results have human consequences that could cascade through the economic food chain.

SIU employees are next on the firing line.

Two extremely serious state-funding crises confront the university and its employees. First is the lack of a budget for the current fiscal year, now about nine months in, and that has choked off state appropriations and Monetary Award Program grants for low-income students. Second are the cuts that governor Bruce Rauner has proposed for the upcoming fiscal year.

A solution for the former is still alive, but it requires massive public support— from SIU’s unions in particular, since they have the most to lose as well as the greatest power to wield.

An imperfect legislative stopgap appropriation, Illinois House Bill 2990, could prove the last chance to stop imminent catastrophe at SIU. If the General Assembly can’t override the governor’s certain veto, well, earthquakes, tornados, or terrorist attacks might wreak their damage more quickly, but collateral damage from the fiscal war in Springfield will hurt Southern Illinois just as deeply and perhaps more permanently. That’s no exaggeration— if SIU lays off hundreds of employees, which the failure of House Bill 2990 will force, then Carbondale will quickly deteriorate into an economic wasteland resembling Cairo.

History Redux

To recap, Rauner has refused to sign a budget into law until the legislature approves his so-called Turnaround Agenda, which largely involves castrating labor unions. Democrats won’t— and shouldn’t— cave in, but so far they haven’t held their legislative supermajority together tightly enough to override Rauner’s vetoes.

Meanwhile, the budget impasse has stopped the flow of money to higher education and many state contractors, particularly social-work organizations funded through the Department of Human Services. This has caused mass layoffs throughout Illinois’s university system alone. One-hundred people lost their jobs at Western Illinois University, and twice that many at Eastern Illinois. Chicago State sent layoff notices to all nine-hundred employees, including the university president.

Most local agencies and schools have held on, hoping that after a budget was finally approved they’d get reimbursed for the work they did in the interim. Nine months into the fiscal year, however, was too long for some major employers to keep working for the state without getting paid.

Prologue: Layoffs at Logan

Most shocking, at least to those who live unconscionably sheltered lives, were last week’s layoffs at John A. Logan College. And that better jolt SIU trustees, administrators, and unions into action, along with local chambers of commerce and elected officials, before significantly worse devastation really hits home.

Logan, as a community college, has the authority to levy a property tax. Furthermore, enrollment grew substantially at Logan between fall 2015 and spring 2016 (and it’s extremely unusual for enrollment to grow between fall and spring semesters at any university or college), so Logan had more tuition and fee money this semester than last.

Even so, due to the state budget impasse, last week Logan laid off twenty-seven tenured faculty and eight non-tenured faculty (together totaling more than a third of the college’s full-time faculty), plus fifteen non-teaching professional staff and five Teamsters.

Usually management cuts from the bottom— the junior employees, in terms of hierarchy if not always length of service, go first. But professors with tenure get paid a lot more than instructors without it or those who aren’t on a tenure track. Lay off one tenured professor and it could be possible to spare four non-tenured or non-tenure-track instructors.

SIU employees, especially professors who feel safe because of tenure or seniority, need to wake up.

SIU Is Next

SIU might be in far worse shape than Logan. SIU does not have property-tax authority. SIU enrollment, and with it tuition and fee revenue, dropped substantially since the fall, and even further since the fall before that.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget, if passed, will result in almost $50 million in total cuts and cost shifts to the SIU system, $25.39 million of which would hit the Carbondale campus. And when the General Assembly kills that budget, as the governor has so far strangled this fiscal year’s, SIU will suffer a second-annual one-hundred percent cut in state support.

Realistically— to say nothing of morally— the Carbondale campus, already overpriced, cannot come close to covering a $25 million loss in state revenue by raising tuition or fees. Or, for that matter, the entire state appropriation that the SIU system generally receives.

The average employee on SIU’s Carbondale campus makes $46,400. That means, assuming no retirements and depending on the structure of Rauner’s budget allocation, SIU’s Carbondale campus would need to lay off about 548 of it’s 6,686 employees to cover the loss of $25.4 million in state revenue.

Imagine the effect of sucking that much money out of the local economy, of siphoning that many highly paid people out of the local workforce. As restaurants and other businesses close, houses go vacant, and property values crash, suddenly that comparison to a natural disaster or a terrorist attack doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Meanwhile, there’s this fiscal year to survive. And make no mistake, unless the General Assembly overrides the coming gubernatorial veto of House Bill 2990, there probably won’t be another politically realistic chance to pass a budget or appropriation until after the November election. That means if House Bill 2990 fails, even bigger mass layoffs than those envisioned above are coming, and everybody’s job will be in danger— including the thousands of residents who don’t work for SIU but whose livelihoods depend on a functional university in this region.

The Best Bad Option

House Bill 2990 isn’t perfect. It funds the Monetary Award Program, on which many low-income students rely to pay for part of their college expenses, at what appears to be a slightly increased level from previous years. It appears to slightly reduce SIU funding. Funding levels aside, Illinois doesn’t have sufficient tax revenue coming in to pay for House Bill 2990, to say nothing about everything else the state does.

Because of that last point, local state representative Terri Bryant voted against House Bill 2990.

Certainly, the state must pay its bills, a responsibility it has largely shirked for decades. But as SIU system president Randy Dunn wrote in a public memo, “SIU— along with almost every other state university— is now in full-on fiscal triage mode.” To follow that analogy a little further, hospitals don’t withhold treatment from critical emergency-room patients until they receive payment.

Bryant’s objections, furthermore, are disingenuous— she has not publicly supported any legislation that would raise the taxes necessary to pay for state operations— the best of which, House Bill 106, the LaSalle Street Tax, as Dan Silver eloquently pointed out a few weeks ago in the Weekend Times, would quickly solve many of Illinois’s financial woes without forcing serious cuts to law enforcement, education, transportation, or human services.

Unions Are Key

Individuals certainly must call legislators and voice their opinions, vote in the March 15 primary, and encourage friends throughout Illinois to cast ballots for candidates sympathetic to the cause. Chambers of commerce and other civic organizations must use their influence as well.

Realistically, however, where Little Egypt is concerned, the fight will probably come down to how active and wide a role SIU’s biggest unions— especially the Faculty Association, the Association of Civil Service Employees, and the Non-Tenure Track Faculty Association— decide to take.

For example: Up in Chicago, a mostly wayward Democrat, Kenneth Dunkin, is facing a tough primary against Juliana Stratton. If SIU’s unions are willing to throw their full weight behind Stratton by sending her campaign contributions and volunteers, they might tip the primary in her favor and set the stage to more easily override the governor’s budget vetoes.

If they go to war on behalf of Terri Bryant’s presumptive Democratic opponent, Marsha Griffin, SIU unions might remove from office a legislator who, since she took office, has consistently voted against funding for state universities, including SIU— when she’s not merely voted present.

These are extraordinary times, and they call for unprecedented action. That leaves SIU’s unions with a choice: step up in a big way and take control of this situation, or gamble on receiving the benevolence of those who hate them on general principles.

Sidebar

Here are some stunning numbers from a recent SIU Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll of Illinois residents.

Only twenty-seven percent of respondents said they had lost a job or their job had been threatened by the state budget impasse. Only ten percent said their local economies were hurt by the budget impasse. Only fifteen percent said they had been affected by cuts to higher education or cuts to the Monetary Assistance Program for low-income college students.

While eighty-four percent of Illinois voters say the state is moving in the wrong direction, only fifty percent disapprove of Rauner’s job performance. Somehow, the poll found forty-one percent who approve of Rauner. (Interestingly, Rauner’s approval and disapproval ratings both grew from last year as undecided voters came off on both sides of the fence.) In Southern Illinois, Rauner polled at forty-nine percent disapproval and a stunningly high, clueless forty-three percent approval.

Those poll numbers indicate that a whopping number of Illinois voters live in complete ignorance about what state funds pay for and the impact of state-government activity on their lives. They show a public largely ignorant about the damage caused by a governor who has held the budget hostage while trying to get the General Assembly to crush Illinois unions as ransom.

 

Clearly, the state’s university system needs to do a better job of educating not just its students but the voting public about what universities do, and the essential, beneficial services they and state government in general provide.