Lawmakers returned to Springfield today to work on a state budget, and so far absolutely nothing of consequence has happened, despite Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “unity” speech last night.
But one area of government has exploded as a potential pressure point: The looming shutdown in billions of dollars worth of roadwork, as soon as July 1.
Groups across the political spectrum are yelling their heads off, including road builders, unions, think tanks and both of Illinois’ U.S. senators. That’s a potent combination. It certainly has the potential to elevate Springfield’s budget war in the public consciousness in a way that hasn’t occurred in two years of budget battling.
Take, for instance, the Illinois Road & Transportation Builders Association, which represents most of the state’s major road construction and design firms.
The group is warning of 30,000 layoffs and millions of dollars in wasted shutdown costs if the Illinois Department of Transportation proceeds with plans to stop all work if fiscal 2018 begins without a budget and spending authority is not in hand.
“The impacts of a shutdown are dire,” association CEO Mike Sturino told me. “The money is there. It should be spent.”
Yet lobbying of lawmakers and Rauner, combined with a social media campaign, are having only a minimal impact so far, he conceded. “I feel like politicians sometimes ought to have cardboard cutouts of themselves that say, ‘I care.’ “
Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth released an unusual letter to Rauner and the four legislative leaders, asking for fast action.
Beyond layoffs, shutdown costs and continuing site maintenance expenses of $2 million a day, there’s also Metra and Amtrak to consider: The rail agencies are dependent, in part, on state appropriations and could face late payments, eventually forcing the agencies to suspend some service, the Democratic senators said.
“The current budget crisis also threatens federal transportation funding,” they wrote, putting the state in the position of being unable to spend $1.3 billion in available federal road funds at a time when it’s asking Washington for more help. “Illinois simply cannot afford the unnecessary costs and the further economic damage that a preventable transportation shutdown would produce.”
Another group, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a research organization, put out a detailed list of projects that are threatened in every section of the state and noted that most of the people who would be affected are solidly in the middle class. “The impacts of the shutdown of all IDOT construction projects will be widespread, affecting workers, travelers and the economy on the whole,” it said.
Rauner and legislative leaders now are not scheduled to meet. Last year, they failed to approve an overall budget but did enact a stopgap measure that, among other things, authorized road spending. Rauner and Senate President John Cullerton have said they will not do that again without a wider deal to bring state spending and revenues into balance.