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by Mason Johnson

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A University of Illinois student walks across the quad. The semester’s almost over, the sun unexpectedly peeks out from behind temperamental clouds. From this angle, Foellinger Auditorium resembles a giant sitting with his head between his legs, bald scalp rising above his knees. The student doesn’t notice. Instead, they’re hyperaware of the sound of old grass crunching beneath their feet.

The student hasn’t been sleeping. They don’t return friends’ calls. They avoid classmates’ gazes when running into them on campus. For months, their fight-or-flight instinct has been a failing light bulb, flickering on and off at random.

The student wonders if it might help to talk to someone.

In the past, this student — feeling what some feel in the months after they’ve been sexually assaulted — could have gone to Rape Advocacy, Counseling and Education Services (RACES) for the kind of long-term counseling that is sorely needed and rarely available in most areas.

That’s no longer an option.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault advocacy organizations across Illinois are being forced to reduce services. (Image Credit: Melissa Heil, Illinois Atlas of Austerity)

“Before the budget impasse started, RACES offered free, unlimited counseling, legal advocacy and a very robust public education and outreach program…” Amy Williams, Outreach Coordinator for RACES, told me. “Those things have all been cut slowly through the course of the year, and are now just gone.”

RACES’ recognizes that trauma is something that takes a long time to heal, Williams said. Having lost half of their budget due to the state budget impasse, they’re no longer able to give their clients that opportunity. This has had a dramatic and severe impact on sexual assault survivors in the Champaign–Urbana community.

“At this point, there’s not a lot of options for people seeking those services,” Williams said. “A lot of other places are having the same budgetary issues we have.”

Those budgetary issues aren’t limited to organizations helping sexual assault survivors. Illinois’s entire social services landscape is sinking, pulled under by the weight of the state’s budget quarrel.

Illinois’s most vulnerable are drowning.

Why? Because Governor Bruce Rauner doesn’t like the workers’ rights values ingrained in Illinois law.

What does a sexual assault survivor’s access to counseling and legal aid have to do with, say, the workers’ compensation laws Gov. Rauner wants to weaken?

"An estimated 8,187 clients of homeless service providers have seen their services reduced or eliminated,"

“An estimated 8,187 clients of homeless service providers have seen their services reduced or eliminated,” Melissa Heil, Illinois Atlas of Austerity.

When a homeless 20-year-old is kicked out of the state-funded home that’s provided him the first security he’s ever known in life, you have to ask, what does that have to do with Gov. Rauner’s pro-business “Turnaround Agenda”?

When a 93-year-old woman is cut off from the senior center she relies on for affordable food — not to mention social interactions, friendship — do you think she’s thankful for Gov. Rauner’s anti-union initiatives?

As Illinois’s politicians trade insults over political ideologies, domestic abuse victims, children with autism, individuals dealing with drug and alcohol addiction and teens in the state’s most violent neighborhoods are the ones paying the literal price.

But that’s not a surprise, is it? The people suffering don’t belong to giant voting demographics, don’t donate substantial stacks of cash to political campaigns and aren’t big businesses looking to bring jobs to the state in exchange for a tax break or two… So why would Gov. Rauner care if the budget impasse is hurting Illinois’s most vulnerable?

And for those of us in Chicago, why would Gov. Rauner care if the budget impasse has contributed to Chicago’s rise in violence?

For a city to prevent violence, it needs intervention services for runaways and at-risk youth, summer jobs programs and anti-violence programs – the kinds of programs that started to lose funding when Illinois legislators refused to pass a budget last summer.

Chicago homicides by month, percentage difference compared to 10 year average, 2006 to 2015...

Chicago homicides by month, percentage difference compared to 10 year average, 2006 to 2015…

If you look at the number of first degree homicides in Chicago last summer, you see homicides slowly start to rise immediately after the state failed to pass a budget. And for those looking to pin all the blame on the upheaval the Chicago Police Department has faced, Illinois’s failure to pass a budget predates the unrest that followed the video release of Laquan McDonald’s death at the hands of a police officer and the December ousting of Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

Without state funds, Chicago’s violence will only continue to rise as kids get out of school for the summer and find themselves without the structure of state-funded youth employment programs and counseling. The city and county offer their own services to tens of thousands of teens, but can’t come close to filling the gaps left by the state.

Consider Children’s Home + Aid’s Englewood programs, which helped runaway teens until the budget crisis forced those programs to close. When a police officer found a runaway juvenile in Englewood, they could call Children’s Home + Aid, which would then send a social worker to take over for the officer. The organization would help that teen find a safe home and assist them in finishing school or finding a job.

Without programs like this, homeless kids in Englewood — which faces a disproportionate amount of Chicago’s violence — are left to live in dangerous situations.

“When you take a 17-year-old kid and they drop outta school and they have to find a way to feed themselves, that’s the perfect recipe for kids to get pulled into violent situations,” Jassen Strokosch, Director of Communication for Children’s Home + Aid, explained. “… If you just look at the kids that we served, had they not been served in the program, we know where’d they be. Some would be arrested, some would be sex trafficked, some would be living in abandoned buildings or dealing drugs, being pulled into gang life. There’s a direct correlation to taking away a program like that, and the outcomes for those kids are worse.”


Teen Reach programs, serving at-risk youth, hasn’t seen a cent from the state in 2016… (Image credit: Melissa Heil, Illinois Atlas of Austerity.)

Chicago’s homicide rate hasn’t been this high in nearly two decades. Kids have died and everyone in Springfield deserves some of the blame.

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This includes Illinois democrats, who have shown an impressive aversion to new or creative ideas to help close the budget shortfall.

If Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton got their way, the solution to our budget and pension woes would be an extension of Gov. Quinn’s temporary income tax hike. After its extension expired, it went from 5 percent to 3.75 percent. Raising it back to 5 percent would likely close much of our immediate shortfall. A temporary raise to 4.25 percent could also help, with a few cuts to the budget.

Sadly, this is the political equivalent of treading water, and we’ve been treading water for a long time.

22 years ago, the state congress created a 50-year pension payment plan. The plan was a ramp, with payments exponentially rising as time went on. Payments started small, have progressively gotten bigger and that burden will continue to grow far larger than what we currently owe, which has surpassed $100 billion.

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Attempts to lower the fiscal burden of the pensions have been rebuffed by the courts, as it’s illegal for the state to take away employee benefits that have already been promised. The course forward is not clear, and will take far more than just an income tax hike to find a permanent solution.

But there are worse things than an inadequate income tax hike. Like, for example, refusing to pass a budget for nearly a year.

Treading water in the immediate is far preferable to the pain the budget impasse has caused. And it seems far better than the “compromise” Gov. Bruce Rauner is attempting to shove down the throats of the Illinois General Assembly.

Have you noticed his use of the word “compromise”? He seems to use it as a barb for those who oppose him…

I can’t shake the feeling he doesn’t know what the word means.

(If Gov. Rauner’s office would like to send me clarification on this mystery, I’ll happily update this opinion piece.)

For something to be a compromise, you need to agree to an equitable give and take.

As he tries to “compromise,” what has Gov. Rauner attempted to take?

In one catastrophic scenario, he’s happy to make billions in budget cuts that would likely cripple social services and possibly even hurt Illinois’s education – elementary schools, high schools and colleges alike. To some degree, this would be a continuation of the social services disaster the state is currently experiencing.

In another apocalyptic scenario, Gov. Rauner will happily ease up on those cuts if he’s allowed to smash the rights of Illinois workers to bits. We’re talking about changes to workers’ compensation laws, we’re talking union busting.

So cuts that would damage Illinois’s most vulnerable, or crushing blows to workers’ rights policies in a traditionally workers’ rights state?

Heck of a choice…

(There are other caveats — term limits and laws to prevent gerrymandering, for example — though the above would be the biggest sticking points…)

Since this is a “compromise,” Gov. Rauner must be offering something HUGE in return.

Not exactly. He’s said he could okay a small income tax hike, but, again, only if we throw unions to the wolves. A small minimum wage hike was on the table at one point, but it was far lower than most state democrats would deem acceptable.

A compromise this is not. It sounds more like a hostage situation.

It’s not even that Gov. Rauner’s pro-business agenda is “wrong.”

Right or wrong, the changes he’s insisting upon are drastic. Making drastic changes on the back of the entire budget immediately after you’re elected while offering paltry concessions in return is not how the state of Illinois will reverse its financial problems. Changes this fundamental are achieved through cooperation over the course of a four-year term, not in one fell swoop.

In fact, Gov. Rauner’s huge changes to workers’ rights may feel like foreign politics for Illinois, but his hasty attempt at a “quick fix” wreaks of the same mentality that – over the past 25 years – has left the state in debt. Every irresponsibly burdensome piece of legislation signed within the past 40 years has had the same thoughtless fervor as the policies Gov. Rauner attempted to force on lawmakers last summer. The only difference? The rest of the state legislature isn’t on board like they were when Governors Jim Thomspon, Jim Edgar, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich committed their costly blunders.

Gov. Rauner needs to learn the lesson they never did: There is no quick fix.

And while the long-term problems won’t solely be fixed by re-raising the income tax, it’s a more humane temporary fix than letting Illinois’s most vulnerable suffer in the name of a handful of political principles.

People across Illinois are suffering. Adults with developmental disabilities, college students, teens unlucky enough to be born into violence and poverty, sexual assault survivors and abused senior citizens are all suffering. A passed budget tomorrow would not reverse the damage that has been done. It would not re-staff the organizations that have ceased to exist. It would not breath life into the still hearts of those who have died.

Remember this when you find yourself in a voting booth two years from now.

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Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.