Less a government shutdown, more a ‘slow strangulation’ | WBEZ
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When is a government shutdown not a shutdown?

Thursday technically marks day nine of the Illinois state government not having a budget. But unlike a federal government shutdown, you might not have seen consequences yet.

Your trains are still running — hopefully they’ve been on time.

The prisons are still accepting inmates and paying to feed them.

If you get a paycheck, you’re still paying state taxes.

So, just what does this shutdown even look like?

“The word shutdown is a bit of a misnomer,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University. “I think this is gonna be more of a slow strangulation.”

Yepsen said the doors to government buildings haven’t been padlocked, yet, which could limit how much, or how often, any given Illinois resident is confronted with the absence of a budget for state government operations.

“Government, oftentimes, doesn’t affect a lot of people directly,” he said.

But Yepsen cautions that the longer the impasse, the more likely you, or someone you know, will see the impact.

“If people with mental health problems all of a sudden aren’t getting treated, that starts to have real consequences in society,” Yepsen said.

In any other year, Illinois state government would be sending money to mental health providers right now. Without a budget, those contracts haven’t materialized; meaning there’s no guarantee finances are coming. For instance, Heather O’Donnell, with Thresholds, one of the largest mental health providers in Chicago, said one $800,000 state contract for psychiatrists is in limbo.

“The longer that we go without a budget then the average person will start to feel it or see it,” O’Donnell said.

Thresholds is a larger operation compared to other mental health providers in the area, and as a result, O’Donnell said it may be able to wait out the political impasse longer than smaller organizations that may have to start turning patients away.

“You wouldn’t withdraw cancer treatment from somebody who has breast cancer but you’re going to pull mental health treatment for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?” she said.

Thresholds and other human service providers that care for people in need, like kids with autism or adults with disabilities, are operating in an gray area while this political stalemate continues. Their uncertainty doesn’t seem to be preventing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner from giving ultimatums to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, or Madigan from acknowledging some of Rauner’s proposals.

But rhetoric aside, there’s also the question of accountability when services usually provided by the state government don’t materialize.

State funding of mental health has been cut in the past several years. When those reductions happened, there was little, if any, political retribution for those who voted in favor of those cuts.

Yepsen's done polling - it shows Illinois residents do want to see cuts, but that doesn’t mean there’s motivation to end the political impasse yet. Because those same people who want to see cuts don’t like the options of choosing to cut either education, prisons, natural resources or social services.

According to Yepsen, some residents are becoming more comfortable with increasing taxes. Though, he adds, the political motivation to end the stalemate may not exist until even more pain is felt by more people — say, when tens of thousands of state employees aren’t paid their salaries in the coming weeks, or when human services close completely.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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