Sunday, April 3, 2016

Rauner's higher education argument

My sympathies in the funding crisis are clearly not with Governor Rauner, but I like to be fact-based. And to understand the enemy (even if one concludes that's the right way to understand him), you need to understand his position.

A difficulty with understanding Rauner's position is that it seems to be constantly changing. Flexibility could of course be a good thing, and a sign of pragmatism, but at least in this case it leaves it difficult to figure out just what the hell Rauner is trying to do (at least difficult for me: real political insiders may understand this better).

I think that Rauner basically has a two-part strategy. The long-term game is to use the crisis to implement 'structural reform' in Illinois. To survive the pressure from the crisis, Rauner has various short-term responses. In this post I'll attempt to address his short-term proposals. Spoiler: they aren't impressive.

Here are Rauner's short term arguments relevant to higher education as I understand them.
  • Blame the Democrats. Rauner often claims Democrats have provoked the crisis in order to force a tax increase,  that they refuse to meet with him, or are otherwise acting irresponsibly, as by passing bills the state can't fund. The Democrats aren't blameless, but the Democratic leadership didn't change in 2015: as poorly as they had been running the state, it was obviously the arrival of Rauner on the scene that has resulted in the current stalemate. Rauner was quoted in April 2015 as telling the Chicago Tribune that "crisis creates opportunity". Lacking the votes in the legislature to pass any of his structural reforms, he's trying to leverage the budget crisis to do so.
  • Blame the universities. Rauner has argued that their administrative costs are way too high. I've addressed this repeatedly (here's the most relevant post). I don't think there's any reason to believe that public universities can cut wasteful spending on anything like the level required to meet Rauner's proposed 20% cut in state spending (much less the 31.5% he proposed last year). The only way to meet those cuts is to serve fewer students (i.e., fewer minority students, first generation students, and poor students) and to serve the rest less well (larger class sizes, fewer programs, etc.). 
The next few items are outlined in this news March 3 release from the governor's office.
  • Rob "special funds". A bill (HB 6409) was proposed by the ill-fated rogue Democrat Ben Dunkin, who recently lost the Democratic primary for his seat, and won't be returning to Springfield for the next legislative term. It would take money originally set aside for 'special purposes' and use it as emergency funding for state universities. I think there's some creative accounting going on here; moreover, the $160 million the governor claims this would produce is only about 10% of the funding needed, as the next item reveals.
  • Give the governor super powers. Another bill (HB 4539) would provide $1.7 billion for higher education. Great! The catch? It would be "paid for" because an attached bill would allow Rauner to redirect money from anywhere else in the state budget he saw fit. That is, Rauner would essentially remove any need for there to be a legislature, as he'd have carte blanche to shift spending wherever he wanted. A prominent democrat characterized that as giving Rauner "imperial powers to shift dollars anywhere he wants".
  • Solve everything else first. Four "reform" ideas  would result in savings. This is just a laundry list of Rauner's ideas to save money, unrelated to higher education. Three are relatively small potatoes; one is solving the pension crisis. Yeah, solving the pension crisis would be a great first step toward solving the higher ed crisis--but the state universities will  all be gone before the pension crisis is solved, at the rate we're going.
In short, I don't think Rauner can make a reasonable case that he's making a good-faith effort to resolve the higher education crisis on its own terms. In other words, either he's happy to see public higher education gutted in Illinois, or he's willing to accept a certain amount of collateral damage in order to pursue his larger agenda. The various arguments he's made in the meantime are largely efforts to limit the political damage caused by the crisis, by shifting blame (to Democrats and/or universities) and by putting up bogus proposals to make his own position look reasonable.

Rauner's larger agenda will take us well beyond the limits of educational policy (and hence of any expertise I possess), but lack of expertise hasn't stopped me before, so I plan to return to the topic later.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I will review and post comments as quickly as I can. Comments that are substantive and not vicious will be posted promptly, including critical ones. "Substantive" here means that your comment needs to be more than a simple expression of approval or disapproval. "Vicious" refers to personal attacks, vile rhetoric, and anything else I end up deeming too nasty to post.