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Students at Northeastern pay the price for Illinois’s budget failures

The state university is the latest victim of the two-year budget stalemate.

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Governor Bruce Rauner released commercials in March accusing state Democrats of cobbling together a budget with duct tape. - STATE SOLUTIONS
  • State Solutions
  • Governor Bruce Rauner released commercials in March accusing state Democrats of cobbling together a budget with duct tape.

By chance, Governor Bruce Rauner unveiled his hokey duct-tape commercials around the same time students and faculty from Northeastern Illinois University took to the streets to protest cuts that threaten to put their school out of existence.

The protests highlight the holy mess Rauner's made out of higher education by refusing to pass a budget unless the Democrats cave and support his antiunion legislation.

And the commercials highlight his well-funded efforts to bamboozle voters into believing the crisis is someone else's fault—as if he's just an innocent bystander in this train wreck.

In case you missed them, the commercials are the ones that show Rauner pretending he's just a regular guy—sitting in a workroom, tools on the walls, wearing a red-and-blue flannel shirt—as he accuses Democrats of cobbling together a budget with duct tape.

After the commercials aired, Rauner insisted they weren't campaign spots. "Really, we're just trying to communicate with the people of Illinois," he told reporters last week while making a visit to Decatur, which he insisted wasn't a campaign appearance.

It's pretty obvious that Rauner likes running for governor more than actually governing.

The commercials are funded by an outfit called State Solutions, Inc.—an arm of the Republican Governors Association.

That means the money to pay for them doesn't come out of the $50 million Rauner, a billionaire, recently donated to his own campaign. Just what Rauner needs—more campaign cash.

Meanwhile, over at Northeastern, students and faculty gathered last Wednesday on the main campus near Foster and Kimball to hear Democratic gubernatorial candidates Ameya Pawar and Daniel Biss lambaste Rauner for running our state colleges and universities into the ground.

As more than one speaker pointed out, Northeastern's traditionally been the school of choice for north-suburban and north-side working-class and lower-income students looking for a relatively affordable commuter school. (Tuition is about $15,000 a year.)


—Ashlei Ross, Northeastern University student


Northeastern isn't to be confused with Chicago State University, which offers similar opportunities for south-side residents and has a raft of its own problems that have mushroomed over the years.

For many students, a degree from a state school is a key step toward achieving the middle-class dream.

"If you want a professional career, you come to a school like this," says Ashlei Ross, a senior at Northeastern, who's studying to be a social worker. "It's like they want to shut the door on our future."

The peculiarities of the budget crisis have slammed state universities. As I've previously written, the state's compelled to pay its employees, even without a budget. But it's not obligated to pay vendors like social service providers. That's why the poorest, most vulnerable residents—like seniors, the disabled, or LGBTQ people—have been hit hardest by the budget crunch. And why much of Rauner's suburban base remains relatively unscathed.

Colleges and universities, like Northeastern, are treated as vendors. So they haven't had a full budget in about two years.

During that time, they've had to make do on two stopgap funding measures that Rauner and the Democrats agreed to. Northeastern's received about $30.2 million. In comparison, the school got $37 million in 2015, the last year it received a full payment from the state. That means the school has basically stretched out a year's worth of payments over 22 months.

To make ends meet, the university has ordered employees to take eight furlough days, and it closed the campus over spring break, leaving students without access to the library, gym, science labs, etc.

Of course, the university weakened its case when it agreed to pay former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett $30,000 to deliver this year's commencement talk.

After the story hit the press, Jarrett waived her fee. Still, it's hard to convince people you're really hard up for bucks when you can blow 30 grand on a speech.

The state budget crisis has also hit hard at the Monetary Award Program—the so-called MAP grants that help low-income students pay their tuition. This year there won't be any MAP grants.

"How are we supposed to use higher education to get a degree and get professional jobs if we can't pay tuition?" says Ross. "I don't have a lot of hope we'll solve this problem soon. I feel this governor we have now, he operates out of conflict."

She makes a good point. In 2012, when he was still a private citizen, Rauner gave a now infamous speech before a right-wing think tank in which he urged the state to pit one faction of the Democratic Party against the other.

"I think we can drive a wedge issue in the Democratic Party," Rauner said, "and bring the folks who say, 'You know what? For our tax dollars, I'd rather help the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, and the children in poverty. I'd rather have my tax dollars going to that than the SEIU or 'Af-scammy' [AFSCME], which are out there for their own interests.'"

In other words, if Rauner snatches MAP grants away from students like Ross, maybe she'll join him in his campaign to cut union pensions. Well, that's his strategy, anyway.

On April 5, the state house passed a "lifeline" measure to send more money to universities like Northeastern.

It now awaits senate passage. But Rauner will probably veto it. So the Democrats will need a few Republicans to help them override the veto.

It doesn't look like they'll find many volunteers, as most Republicans depend on Rauner for campaign financing. Apparently, Rauner's convinced Republicans that destroying higher education is a cause worth fighting for. Their position can best be summed up by Mark Batinick, a Republican state representative from suburban Plainfield.

"We should not vote for this on the floor," said Batinick, paraphrasing Dr. Seuss. "We should not vote for this on our way out the door. We should not vote for this here or there."

At least they're entertaining themselves.   v


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