Rauner pleads to Assembly on budget, gets booed by hundreds of protesters

Springfield protesters
Citizens rallied outside the Capitol building before Gov. Bruce Rauner made his annual budget address.

By Morgan Gilbard

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s annual budget address to the Legislature was upstaged by approximately 400 protesters who stormed the State Capitol on Wednesday afternoon and booed the governor upon his departure.

The protesters’ chants condemning higher education cuts were audible from inside the General Assembly chamber, where Rauner tried to placate Democrats with new attempts to compromise on a solution to resolve the eight-month budget impasse.

“With my hand outstretched — with a genuine desire to compromise with respect — I humbly ask you to join me in transforming our state for the better,” Rauner said. “Turnarounds are about changing direction…For our children. For our future.”

The governor recognized a need to address Illinois’ current financial crisis before jumping ahead to the 2017 budget, the customary purpose of the annual speech. Proposing a mix of reforms–including some that would weaken unions, something Rauner has pushed–budget cuts and tax expansion, Rauner changed his tone dramatically from last year, when his budget address reflected an unwillingness to compromise with Democrats on cuts.

No resolution for higher education cuts

Today, Rauner promised to sign a bill that would independently resolve K-12 education woes, as long as the Democratic majority played by his rules. “No matter how this session unfolds, send that education bill to my desk – clean, no games – and I’ll sign it immediately.”

While Rauner addressed demands for a resolution to the K-12 funding crisis, he failed to mention a strategy to save higher education funding—the issue that drove protesters to Springfield as college students move closer to the possibility of drastic staff and program cuts .

“How could somebody vote this man into office when he doesn’t care about my education?” asked Kyliah Ceasar, a student at Chicago State University, which has declared a financial emergency and faces massive cuts in March.  “CSU saves lives. All of these schools save lives. I’m mad. The governor doesn’t have the right to do this,” Ceasar added.

Blame of Rauner echoed throughout the Capitol, while a few protesters cited a lack of compromise among legislators as a reason for the impasse.

“They’ve been playing political chess with us back and forth,” said Charles Preston, another CSU student, to crowds outside the Capitol. “Eight months without a budget? What are you getting paid for?”

While most of the protesters were CSU students and faculty, Eastern Illinois University stood in solidarity with them, knowing that the school also faces a similar fate.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future,” said David Gracon, an EIU professor, who worries the most about cuts to the Monetary Advantage Program (MAP), which provides over 125,000 low-income college students with state aid to pay tuition. “To me, it’s kind of a class warfare. It’s really a war against working and poor people who can’t afford to go to college.”

Rauner booed as he leaves the assembly chamber

Schools have already been fronting the cost to keep MAP students in school at the expense of other services. Some schools, like Northeastern Illinois University, promise that they will continue to make low-income students a priority. But the attempts to stay afloat financially, amid the political deadlock, are not sustainable, according to the Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education.

One Northeastern student and MAP grant recipient, who is a first-generation college student from a low-income family, wonders if Rauner truly understands the struggles of students like her who rely on state aid.

“If he was in my position, I guarantee he’d be here protesting for his education,” said the student, Gladys, who asked that her last name not be used. “I’d ask him to touch his heart a bit. It’s our future.”

Gladys and other protesters shouted in hope that Rauner and legislators would hear them. With most barred from the assembly chambers, they only shared a small moment with the governor, who exited quickly as protesters booed from the rotunda.

The students stayed behind, hosting a “study-in” in the Capitol lobby. The crowd included a large contingent of black and Hispanic students, their calls for education equality echoing to the Abraham Lincoln statue on the front lawn. Few Springfield officials stayed to hear them.

Photo at top: Citizens rallied outside the Capitol building before Gov. Bruce Rauner made his annual budget address. (Morgan Gilbard/MEDILL)