Rauner proposes more deep cuts to state universities

SIU President Randy Dunn speaks with (left to right) Holly Hurlburt, a history professor; Patricia Chalmers, an art and design professor; and Stephanie Dukat, a masters student in ceramics, inside the State Capitol on Wednesday.

SIU President Randy Dunn speaks with (left to right) Holly Hurlburt, a history professor; Patricia Chalmers, an art and design professor; and Stephanie Dukat, a masters student in ceramics, inside the State Capitol on Wednesday. "I don't think we can come out of today and sit quietly," Dunn told the members of the SIU community. 

By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner introduced his proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 to state legislators Wednesday, calling for a 20 percent spending reduction to Illinois’ public universities. 

SIU would lose a total of $100 million in state aid under the governor’s proposal for next year and the current fiscal year. Public universities and community colleges in the state have received no state funding in almost nine months since the gridlock in Springfield began.

“I don’t think we can come out of today and sit quietly,” SIU President Randy Dunn said in response to the governor’s budget message.

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Dunn added that he and other university presidents need to “take the bull by the horns” and advance a better bill for higher education with state legislators.

The most recent state appropriation paid nearly $200 million in operational costs across the three SIU campuses. Rauner’s proposed budget would allocate about $160 million next year and an estimated expenditure of $140 million during the current fiscal year.

“I think [Rauner’s proposal] has very serious implications for the university,” said John Charles, the university’s executive director of governmental affairs.

The university will remain open, but the loss in funding the governor has proposed would drastically change “how the university looks,” Charles said.

He could not detail what that meant, exactly.

“We’ve got to come back and digest this information and get a bigger picture of how this impacts the entire university,” Charles said.

State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said the governor has been, by and large, unwilling to negotiate with Democrats in the legislature, which has major negative effects on his constituents.

“[Rauner] has shut down the Sparta shooting range, cut off funding to Southern Illinois University, and as of recent, permanently closed the Southern Illinois Art and Artisans Center at Rend Lake; yet again costing people jobs,” Forby said.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said Tuesday the governor supports state universities and would back a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, that funds public higher education at $1.6 billion statewide. It has been sitting in rules committee for three weeks.

But SIU’s Charles said the university would not currently support that bill because it would reduce spending at SIU by $40 million.

The bill is also attached to a companion bill that would enact the Unbalanced Budget Response Act, granting the governor unilateral power to make sizable cuts to the budget and freely transfer general funds and sweep funds during his term.

“It wouldn’t solve our long-term challenges,” Rauner said of the act. “But it would, at the very least, allow us to stop digging the hole deeper.” 

Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said Wednesday the governor is giving Democrats an ultimatum to either approve reforms that would expand the economy or grant the administration flexibility on the budget.

“The governor is more than ready to compromise, but [Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan] appears to be dug in and looking to teach the governor a lesson,” Luechtefeld said.

Rauner asked legislators to pass the Unbalanced Budget Response Act because similar power has been granted to previous governors in financial emergencies.

But that isn’t entirely true, said Mike Lawrence, a longtime Illinois political analyst and former advisor to Gov. Jim Edgar. 

“I don’t recall any Illinois governor being given that kind of authority,” Lawrence said, adding that it is unlikely such a bill would pass through the General Assembly. “To the best of my recollection, this would be unprecedented in Illinois.”

Although the state legislature has granted some extended powers over the state budget in previous administrations, the scope of the power granted to Rauner would establish him as a “fiscal dictator,” Lawrence said. 

“I still believe that the way to address this horrendous fiscal situation is for the governor and the legislature to sit down and agree on a plan,” he said.

But as the state nears its ninth month without a budget, some analysts believe the impasse could last until November.

University officials will meet in the coming days to draft plans in response to the message the governor is sending public universities, Charles said.

“Hopefully we’ll be finding out more in the coming days and we’ll be working with everybody to get an appropriation that is livable for the university,” he said.

Anna Spoerre contributed to this report.

Bill Lukitsch can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 536-5399.

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