Bruce Rauner was elected governor of Illinois in a low-turnout off-year election in 2015, against the uninspiring Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn, who had served as Blagojevich’s running mate and had barely squeaked out a win against a previous Republican candidate who had quite literally proposed a bill to allow puppy gas chambers. Illinois voters likely expected that any Republican would be relatively moderate, and the Democrats had a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature — so presumably it felt safe to act out and express discontent for the status quo.
What followed was an unprecedented, intentionally created crisis as Rauner flatly refused to pass any budget unless Democrats conceded to demands that he knew they could never concede to. In theory, the Democrats could have overridden the veto and rendered Rauner irrelevant — but he paid off a Democratic House member, Ken Dunkin, who prevented the Democrats from actually using their supermajority. While Dunkin was defeated in the recent primary, with the help of a nearly unprecedented presidential endorsement in a state-level election, he will remain in office for the rest of this calendar year and has shown no willingness to reverse course on his support for Rauner. (Indeed, his future prospects likely now depend even more on pleasing Rauner.)
I have followed events most closely in higher ed. Public universities in Illinois typically get about a third of their funding from the state, and a system of grants for low-income students also supplement budgets. Both sources of funding have been unavailable due to the budget impasse — even though the money is quite literally sitting in the state treasury, the lack of a budget law means it cannot be disbursed. This isn’t as much of a problem for the flagship University of Illinois or the University of Illinois at Chicago, but regional and second-tier schools are on the verge of closure. Believing that a budget would ultimately be approved, they spent down their cash reserves, and now many are struggling to keep their doors open even through the end of this year. This was most dramatic in the case of Chicago State, which cancelled Spring Break in order to get through the end of the semester before the money ran out.
This crisis is what I had in mind when I said yesterday that autonomous state-level government is a ticking time bomb. Essentially we have a situation where two guys have brought an entire state to its knees, with no popular mandate and no respect for any political norms. And the media is complicit, due to their knee-jerk assumption that any political gridlock must be the fault of “both sides” — when in reality, Rauner is a dangerous radical and is entirely, 100% to blame for creating this crisis. Indeed, it’s becoming clear that he never had any intention of signing a budget. Why would he waste his time on a compromise when simply doing nothing allows him to achieve his goal of destroying the public sector much more rapidly?
And so if the Democrats do not maintain and whip their supermajority after the next election, then we are looking at four years without a budget in Illinois. Lives and livelihoods will be ruined. Important and irreplaceable institutions will be destroyed. All because one guy managed to slip under the radar in a low-turnout off-year election.