Think of this: The last regular budget for the public universities in Illinois ran out in July 2015. That was six months before the Iowa presidential caucuses and long before anyone predicted that the Republican candidate Donald J. Trump had a chance to win his party’s nomination, let alone the presidency.
Few could also have predicted the political standoff that has blocked Illinois lawmakers from passing a complete state budget over nearly 18 months. At the center of the impasse is Gov. Bruce V. Rauner, a Republican, who promised to shake up state government. Mr. Rauner, the first Illinois governor to have no prior experience in government, proposed a “Turnaround Agenda” that would cut the state’s budget, freeze property taxes, limit the bargaining power of unions, place term limits on elected officials, and overhaul the state pension system.
Mr. Rauner, 69, has demanded that legislators pass items on the agenda as a condition of signing a budget, arguing that his plans will help to improve the state’s finances. The Democratically controlled Legislature, however, has balked at the governor’s plans, saying they are aimed primarily at weakening labor unions and should be considered separately from the budget.
Even some fellow Republicans are critical of Mr. Rauner’s lack of compromise. “He’s entitled to his approach,” said James Edgar, a former Illinois governor, to Governing magazine in October 2015. “But if I were governor right now, my priority would be to get a budget. These other things he might have to put off and wait to do another day.”
The budget showdown has had a heavy impact on the state’s education appropriations in particular. Thanks to court actions and temporary legislative fixes, most of the state government has continued to receive some money to continue operating. Lawmakers also approved funds to keep colleges open during the summer, but the lack of regular appropriations has pushed a handful of institutions to lay off faculty and cancel courses. Chicago State University has been on the brink of shutting down for months, and rumors of a closure have also circulated at Eastern Illinois University, whose credit rating was downgraded to junk-bond status in February.
“Illinois has been an extreme example of political discord,” says Thomas L. Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “This could lead to copycat brinksmanship.”
Indeed, a similar budget stalemate went on for nearly nine months in Pennsylvania, until Gov. Tom Wolfe, a Democrat, agreed in March not to veto some legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. In allowing the bills to become law without his signature, the governor acknowledged that it was “time to move on.”
In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, tried to single-handedly dismiss the governing board of the University of Louisville and also persuaded its president to resign. The governor’s actions, made through executive order and without approval from legislators, caused the university’s regional accreditor to consider whether its standards for governance were violated. The state’s attorney general sued to stop the governor, and state courts have, so far, agreed that Mr. Bevin exceeded his authority.
Elections, of course, are always the ultimate test for lawmakers, and voters will have a chance in 2018 to decide if they approve of Governor Rauner’s methods. But that may be too far off for some of the state’s public universities to survive.
Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at email@example.com.
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