Holding Your Ground Against Austerity: Lessons from the Illinois Budget Deal

Progressive movements didn’t back down in the face of a right-wing ideologue.

Amisha Patel July 13, 2017

Protesters rally in Springfield, Illinois to demand a fair budget. (Grassroots Collaborative)

Like a tor­na­do, right-wing ide­o­logues have swept through state­hous­es across the Mid­west leav­ing dev­as­ta­tion in their wake. Scott Walk­er in Wis­con­sin, Mike Pence in Indi­ana and Bruce Rauner in Illi­nois came into office with dreams of slash­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices and destroy­ing work­er pro­tec­tions. In order to imple­ment their aus­ter­i­ty agen­das, they worked to cre­ate cri­sis and chaos.

We’ve made important strides towards a bold vision. What we still need to do is build the power to fully achieve that vision, by organizing with people in all parts of Illinois.

In Illi­nois, res­i­dents expe­ri­enced this strat­e­gy first­hand dur­ing a his­toric bud­get impasse that made nation­al head­lines. Gov. Rauner held the state hostage in an attempt to force the leg­is­la­ture to pass his aus­ter­i­ty agen­da. As a result, over one mil­lion Illi­nois res­i­dents lost access to crit­i­cal ser­vices. Rape cri­sis cen­ters were shut down, seniors were forced into nurs­ing homes, home­less fam­i­lies were turned away from shel­ters and young peo­ple lost access to life-sav­ing, anti-vio­lence programs.

A col­laps­ing social ser­vice and pub­lic edu­ca­tion infra­struc­ture was exact­ly what Rauner want­ed. The gov­er­nor made his for­tune, in large part, by tak­ing over cor­po­ra­tions and break­ing them into pieces: Destruc­tion is his for­mu­la for prof­it. He issued extreme demands, includ­ing insist­ing on mul­ti­ple state con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments in exchange for a bud­get. How­ev­er, this strat­e­gy didn’t work. After three long years, mem­bers of his own par­ty defect­ed this month, allow­ing the Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture to over­ride his veto of the state bud­get and to final­ly end the impasse.

The bud­get that passed falls short. It insuf­fi­cient­ly funds many crit­i­cal ser­vices, cut­ting $3 bil­lion from cur­rent spend­ing lev­els, accord­ing to state Rep. Greg Har­ris. Fur­ther­more, it relies on Illi­nois fam­i­lies to foot the bill by impos­ing an increase in the state’s flat tax instead of requir­ing the wealthy to pay their fair share. Only two very mod­est cor­po­rate loop­holes were closed. Pro­gres­sive rev­enue solu­tions — such as clos­ing the car­ried inter­est loop­hole, clos­ing sig­nif­i­cant cor­po­rate loop­holes, or imple­ment­ing a pro­gres­sive tax struc­ture — remain sidelined.

This means that, for now, Illi­nois will con­tin­ue to have one of the most unfair tax sys­tems in the coun­try, in which low and mid­dle income fam­i­lies pay a greater per­cent­age of their income than the state’s most wealthy res­i­dents. Even though Rauner was unsuc­cess­ful in per­pet­u­at­ing the impasse, his fin­ger­prints can be seen all over the final prod­uct of an aus­ter­i­ty budget.

To build statewide pow­er in the face of aus­ter­i­ty, orga­niz­ers need to do two things: craft a bold vision for full fund­ing under a rights frame­work and build the elec­toral pow­er that demands that vision. In Illi­nois, we’ve made real progress, cre­at­ing a People’s Agen­da lay­ing out our vision of where we need to get to, mak­ing the bold demands for what our com­mu­ni­ties have the right to, and build­ing coali­tions will­ing to move the ball for­ward when progress seems impossible.

Instead of cav­ing to low­ered expec­ta­tions, Illi­nois res­i­dents came togeth­er like nev­er before. Social-ser­vice providers who nor­mal­ly remain apo­lit­i­cal ral­lied in the streets, not to advo­cate for one bud­get line item over anoth­er, but to say the wealthy should pay their fair share so we can expand ser­vices instead of cut­ting them. A group of res­i­dents being hurt by the bud­get impasse marched 200 miles to Spring­field. Unions strength­ened alliances with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions. The Grass­roots Col­lab­o­ra­tive, Fair Econ­o­my Illi­nois, Illi­nois Coali­tion for Immi­grant and Refugee Rights, Grass­roots Edu­ca­tion Move­ment, the Fight for 15 and oth­ers advanced aspi­ra­tional demands dur­ing a peri­od that could have eas­i­ly been pure­ly defensive.

In the midst of the cri­sis and chaos cre­at­ed by Gov­er­nor Rauner, we pushed an Illi­nois pro­gres­sive agen­da far­ther than ever before and made his­toric progress. Illi­nois became the first state to pass a $15 min­i­mum wage in both the upper and low­er hous­es. The Illi­nois Sen­ate passed a bill to close the car­ried inter­est loop­hole by plac­ing a priv­i­lege tax on Wall Street mon­ey man­agers, becom­ing the first leg­isla­tive body in the coun­try to do so. Togeth­er, a broad coali­tion passed a bill to give Chica­go an elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive school board, some­thing that Chica­go par­ents have been demand­ing for decades. The Gen­er­al Assem­bly also passed the Illi­nois Trust Act that would expand pro­tec­tions of Illi­nois immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty run­ning direct­ly counter to Gov­er­nor Rauner’s anti-immi­grant anti-refugee poli­cies.

We’ve made impor­tant strides towards a bold vision. What we still need to do is build the pow­er to ful­ly achieve that vision, by orga­niz­ing with peo­ple in all parts of Illi­nois. To this end, Grass­roots Col­lab­o­ra­tive is exper­i­ment­ing with build­ing pro­gres­sive statewide infra­struc­ture, begin­ning with devel­op­ing grass­roots lead­ers and engag­ing spo­radic vot­ers of col­or in Peo­ria. Work­ing fam­i­lies, women and peo­ple of col­or must be at the cen­ter of our agen­da. And unless we build mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships across the state, Rauner will con­tin­ue to manip­u­late a racist anti-Chica­go nar­ra­tive, and keep the state divid­ed against itself.

There is still much work to do. Many of the bills we’ve passed are still at risk of being vetoed by Rauner. Illi­nois will still not be able to make the need­ed invest­ment in our peo­ple unless we win more pro­gres­sive rev­enue. But the strides made dur­ing the Illi­nois bud­get impasse should be a les­son to all of us oper­at­ing in states run by right-wing ide­o­logues like Rauner. We can­not make progress with­out issu­ing bold demands for what our com­mu­ni­ties need. And we can’t win our bold visions with­out build­ing for­mi­da­ble grass­roots pow­er that demands a new way for­ward. That is the big task that lies before all of us as we head into the 2018 elections.

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