It’s no secret that Illinois has been in fiscal free fall for decades, but now the state’s budget crisis has reached a new nadir as lawmakers duke it out over a budget before tonight’s deadline. Unlike the monetary woes of the St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud orphanage in The Blues Brothers, it’s going to take more than getting the band back together to fix. But if the government can’t beat a budget deadlock, social services like St. Helen, which have already taken a hit, are going to come to a standstill.
State addiction services to combat the opioid crisis, domestic violence shelters, mental health facilities, Meals on Wheels — all of those are made available through state funding, and are threatened by the fiscal crisis. “The people who get impacted are the people who are sick, who need the support from the state to be safe and healthy and get back on their feet and become self-sufficient, or to live their final days in dignity,” Andrea Durbin, the chief executive of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, told the New York Times.
The problem is that both state Republicans and state Democrats have failed Illinois financially since the 1980s, and have consistently chosen to prioritize politics and quick fixes over actual reform and long-term planning. Durbin explained that “this impasse has been very cleverly designed to minimize the immediate obvious impact on middle-class families that don’t have a need for state-funded social services.”
In other words, Illinois’ poorest have been thrown under the bus for the sake of saving face with middle class constituents whose worst problem in all of this has been increasing property taxes — and that’s still a problem bad enough that Illinois population is dropping. But they aren’t going to be able to keep running, and the past has caught up.
State comptroller Susana A. Mendoza explained that without a budget deal, “We are no longer going to be able to meet our core state responsibilities.” That means it’s not just social services that are under threat, it’s also schools, roads, the prison system, state parks, public transit, and more. Students are afraid universities will shut down halfway through their degree programs. Illinois could be the first state ever to receive a “junk” credit rating, a result of operating $15 billion in the red. And that’s not counting state’s pension system, which is underfunded, but still stands as a quarter-trillion iceberg that the state is headed straight for as state employees retire.
The most pressing problem at the moment is whether or not Democrats and Republicans will be able to agree on a course of action by midnight tonight. It doesn’t look promising. Lawmakers are already at the end of a ten day stretch of negotiations, and the biggest advocate of the “grand bargain” budget deal on the table, Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, just resigned.
Meanwhile, the lottery will officially stop selling tickets tonight at 9:45 PM because the state can’t afford to pay Powerball and Mega Millions winners. If there’s no budget, there will be similar countdowns, one after another as various services bleed out. Construction crews will walk away from unfinished road and bridge projects. State employee salaries will freeze. And then Illinois will know what it’s really like when you’re down and out. It will be time to sing the blues.