What You Need to Know About the Illinois Budget Crisis
The spring session of the Illinois General Assembly is underway, but the governor and legislature still have not adopted a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2015. Now inching toward its eighth month, the budget stalemate and funding drought show few signs of a resolution. A major consequence of the disagreement has fallen on Illinois's public universities that have been operating without state funding since the stalemate began.
In a recent letter to Governors State University’s faculty and staff, President Elaine P. Maimon wrote, “GSU’s enrollment growth and its history of careful financial management have served us well. But no university can withstand the sustained withholding of operating funds.”
Until now, students have been insulated from the budget strain. Grant recipients at Illinois state universities who would have lost Monetary Award Program funding as a result of the budget stalemate have been shielded by state their state universities who have accepted the liability.
"For what I would have been awarded in MAP, GSU has fronted the cost," GSU Sophomore Justin Smith told public television's Chicago Tonight. "Essentially, they are taking care of that for me for now, and for the other GSU students who are MAP eligible."
MAP grants help as many as 130,000 Illinois students pay for college, but the program ran dry when the 2016 budget never materialized. President Maimon said that GSU has covered its students $3 million in MAP grants since the start of the Fall 2015 semester, and continuing into the Spring 2016 semester.
“We are trying to be good citizens by fronting the MAP grants for students to stay in school. But we are running on fumes, using reserve money that should be used for repairs to the university,” she said.
The governor and the general assembly have been very far apart in their proposals for higher education funding, with the governor looking for a 31 percent cut, and Democrats in the legislature proposing a 6.5 percent cut. University administrators, students, and other advocates hope their influence can help bring about a resolution.
"The public university presidents talk together once a week, laying out what they can do to urge a solution. They met with Governor Rauner last fall, and stressed the effect this budget crisis has on the students," explained Maureen Kelly, GSU’s Director of Governmental and Community Relations.
The university presidents also sent a letter to the governor and legislative leaders, and they didn't mince words. "If a state budget is not approved in the very near future, public higher education in Illinois will be damaged beyond repair and the consequences for the state will be severe," they wrote.
Mychal Vanarsdale, GSU Student Senate President, is part of student efforts to turn up the pressure in Springfield. He has traveled to the state capital three times in recent months to advocate for funding, participating in a march, rally, and meetings with legislators.
"Some of our recent advocacy has been around MAP, and restoring the MAP grants. And that's important, but it's not the only focal point. The funding to run the universities is just as important, so we're focusing on that, too," Vanarsdale said.
Vanarsdale also stressed the role students have in persuading state leaders to come to a budget agreement.
"Our state leaders need to see the faces of the cuts, and know the impact it has on education," he said. "This is not a time for us to be timid. Students need their voices to be heard. If one person pushes out a message about the budget on Twitter, that's one thing, but if the whole school does it, that can have an impact."
The student advisory council of the Illinois Board of Higher Education is also planning another Advocacy Day in Springfield.
Vanarsdale will take part. Thinking back to last fall, he said, "Hopefully, next time we go there will be better mutual understanding on both sides."