Smile Politely

The business of government: The Budget Impasse targets Champaign-Urbana

Friday night, during The Round Table: Illinois State Budget Impasse event, a very clear narrative emerged: a narrative of vulnerability, power and civic engagement here in Champaign-Urbana.

The Round Table was hosted by The Accord, in collaboration with the Campus Faculty Association (CFA). Speakers included State Representative Carol Ammons, State Senator Scott Bennett, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UIUC Edward Feser, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition (NTFC) Local #6546 President Shawn Gilmore, and Champaign Councilmember Will Kyles. The speakers discussed before a packed room how the budget impasse has affected education and Champaign-Urbana communities.

To date, Governor Rauner has delayed or blocked funding for disabilities, the elderly, community colleges, universities, and students. While the budget has been mishandled for decades by both Republicans and Democrats, the budget crisis is not the fault of these civil programs or of taxpayers.

“You’re still paying taxes. Money is still coming in. Let’s talk about how to distribute it,” said Bennett. While C-U taxpayers will soon do their civic duty and pay state and federal income tax, Rauner enters his ninth month of not doing his.

Meanwhile, Rauner holds the budget hostage with the goal of gutting collective bargaining rights, which protect Champaign-Urbana citizens from abuse.

“We are trampling the most vulnerable as collateral damage,” added Mayor Prussing. As a result of this politicized impasse, the state’s credit rating has been downgraded, making Illinois even less attractive for investment. While Illinois may miss out on the millions such investments could bring, it’s the most vulnerable who will feel the greatest loss in daily quality of life.

That loss includes Rauner’s refusal to fund the Monetary Award Program (MAP), a grant program for Illinois students who demonstrate financial need. In the Champaign-Urbana area, this harms not only Parkland College but the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign as well. Students who normally rely on MAP funding have had to sacrifice more time to part or full-time jobs in order to stay in school, and that has a lasting effect on academic success. As Rauner continues to sacrifice the most economically vulnerable, he’s also further bloating systemic racism.

“If you see two African-American students walking on campus, chances are one of them is on MAP and these students don’t have the economic stability to self-fund their education,” said Vice Chancellor Feser on the impact of MAP for U of I students. While you may not be a MAP-funded student, or you may not have a job that relies on state funding, as Senator Bennet said, “Not funding education has a ripple effect.”

It’s clear that the budget impasse is more than short-term shrinking pains. There will be lasting effects from Rauner’s turn-around agenda.

“How do you deal with these long term issues? How do we deal with pensions?” asked Councilmember Kyles, who was greatly concerned about struggling CU communities and families. “How about the most vulnerable? We have programs that live and die based on one person keeping them there. What happens to the vulnerable when those programs go away?” With Illinois posing such a credit risk, new businesses will set up shop elsewhere, and that means no new jobs to pick up the slack where these programs used to be.

This turn around seems to be taking us in the wrong direction, back into a past when there was greater economic and racial inequality. In fact, Rauner seems to be preparing for a very near future in which the lack of opportunities has its inevitable effect: higher crime and incarceration.

“Rauner is proposing a budget increase for corrections and a decrease in higher education,” explained Ammons. Not only does Rauner want to destroy workers’ ability to protect their rights and quality of life by gutting collective bargaining, but he’s also destroying opportunities for escaping poverty by defunding education. “This is truly about operating Illinois like Burger King. He wants it his way,” said Ammons. 

However, supporters of Rauner say these are just the moves of a savvy businessman, and a business mind is what we need now to get Illinois out of the budget crisis caused by decades of mishandling by politicians. But do we really want to run government like a business? Profits sound great, but who do those profits go to in a business model? They go to CEO’s and stockholders, not to teachers or firefighters, and not to the communities. 

“Watch out for people who say they want someone from outside government because no business could do what a government does,” warned Bennett. Rauner isn’t in the business of “taking care of its people,” that’s what makes a government different declareed Senator Bennett. 

While Rauner only seems interested in getting his, Kyles called for an end to bipartisan stonewalling: “We don’t always do the best job of working together. Let’s look at ourselves differently and work together.” While Rauner talks a great deal about the need for compromise, what he really means is for his opposition to do all the compromising. But for Ammons, the problem is less about which party has the power, because this struggle is really about people’s lives. “We have to care about those across the aisle, to take care of those who have the least,” she noted. 

When the state budget is being decided without you in mind, Kyles said “It’s very difficult to plan for the unknown.” The probable results of the budget impasse are scary enough, but for many it’s the uncertainty itself that can destroy lives. In talking about the damage done U of I, Feser explained that “Uncertainty is one of the biggest morale killers.” But morale is more than just self-satisfaction. Low moral has a tangible, observable effect on the amount of quality workers who come to Champaign-Urbana and stay. “Our faculty flight is double that of last year,” added Feser.

Even though U of I is facing pressure to cut jobs and services in order to make it observable how much they’re hurting for funding, Feser explained that “No large institution would make large sweeping cuts just to make a political statement, because these are people’s lives.” 

Honestly though, how many C-U citizens have seen an observable shift in their daily lives as a result of this budget nonsense? It could simply be the case of tightening the state belt for a while. NTFC’s president, representing vulnerable non-tenure-track faculty at U of I, Gilmore disagreed, however. “People will be seeing an impact very soon, at the end of the Spring semester. People will ask: What about my lease? What about my actual residency? What about my health care? What about my students when their instructors are laid off?” Instead of continuing to grow our community, we may see a mass exodus out of state or to Chicago where there are at least more employment options. 

See, this discussion about the governor’s tough stance against funding the vulnerable sounds all too familiar to U of I faculty. Even before the budget crisis, tenure-stream lines have declined by the hundreds, which the University had promised to reclaim in the last Strategic Plan. As tenure lines disappear, more non-tenure-track faculty are needed to pick up the slack. When people speak of the vulnerable, rarely do they think of someone wearing a tweed jacket, teaching college classes. But there are hundreds of faculty on the Champaign-Urbana campus alone—teaching your kids, performing ground-breaking research—any of whom could be replaced each year with no explanation. Faculty are making decisions about how much they can really afford to build a life in Champaign-Urbana, whether they can start a family or buy a house—in general invest in C-U—with no safety net, no chances at promotion, lacking the security of multiple year appointments, and no guarantee of pay adjustments that at least keep up with the increase of cost-of-living. 

So how do we move forward? Who has the power to turn things around for Champaign-Urbana? Who has the power to turn things around for the University? Is it Rauner? “You don’t get into this crisis in the short run,” explained Feser. It also seems clear that getting out of such a crisis isn’t a short run solution, accomplishable by individuals in key positions. Instead, “We have to build a healthy civic engagement,” said Feser. “We won’t get out of this by just making decisions from the top down.” 

That’s the exact thinking that caused non-tenure-track faculty to form NTFC Local #6546 back in 2014. “Rauner has painted unions, teachers, civil workers as the villains but they aren’t the cause of these systemic problems. But these groups coming together could be the long-term solution,” said Gilmore. From AFCHME to SEIU, from GEO to NTFC, Champaign-Urbana has a core of strong or growing unions working to improve the lives of C-U citizens. Through collective bargaining, through collective action, citizens are able to nudge the state into turning around and representing their needs, not just the needs of millionaires.

“The reason we unionized,” explained Gilmore, “was not about our own petty concerns, but to be part of the comprehensive picture and working with administration to shape the future for all of us.” 

As a result of the budget impasse, MAP students, civil servants, Parkland and U of I, non-tenure-track faculty and other vulnerable groups in our community, all have a common problem: uncertainty about the future. The University of Illinois has begun to discuss a possible solution so that future state budgeting problems are less likely to burden our institutions and students again: multi-year funding.

“Let’s move to a multi-year budget from the state. Let’s move to multi-year contracts for our faculty. Both create stability. The University wants that stability and so do our faculty,” said Gilmore. 

While the stability from multi-year contracts has been slow in coming at U of I, Feser said “We are driven to provide stability for our non-tenure-track faculty.” The call for stability for non-tenure-track faculty comes from the same place as Feser’s call for Rauner to “remain committed to public higher education.” The key word here being “public,” for the public, by the public, and that means everyone, especially the vulnerable.

All this high-minded rhetoric is great and all, but we also have to face the hard facts, right? The state is in a budget crisis. Cuts will have to be made to get us turned around and going in the right direction. For some, that means sacrificing funding that goes to these vulnerable groups, because to Rauner, the “vulnerable” are those who give the least contribution back in return.

But that’s thinking too short-term. Only long-term thinking can really get us out of this hole. Only long-term thinking will bring more businesses into Champaign-Urbana while also improving the lives of its citizens. First and foremost, Bennett said, “Businesses look for stability and a steady stream of talent.” That talent, he adds, “comes from community colleges and universities. Let’s look at what will bring businesses here and that’s funding higher education.”

Now more than ever, it’s time to invest. Invest from the bottom up. Encourage civic engagement so decisions come from the bottom up. That means supporting the economically vulnerable, giving MAP students the means to create better lives for themselves and greater stability for the state. It means investing in non-tenure-track faculty. It means multi-year funding for universities and multi-year contracts for non-tenure-track faculty so the best and the brightest want to come here, and we’re able to keep it that way for a long time. 

Photos courtesy of Samuel T. Logan.

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