Over fifty years ago, my great-grandmother Birdia Keglar marched in Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Today I join two dozen others on a 15-day, 200-mile march from Chicago to Springfield to demand a “People & Planet First” budget for Illinois.
I carry with me a promise I made to my great-grandmother — because fifty years later, her fight is far from over.
My great-grandmother was a fearless activist who spent years demanding the right to vote in Mississippi. She was targeted by the Klan, and on her way home from giving testimony to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy about poverty and denial of voting rights, her car was forced off the road. She and her 78-year-old mentor, Adlena Hamlett, were then brutally killed.
I was five years old in 1966 when my great-grandmother was murdered. When the pallbearers rolled her casket out of the church, I touched it with my little hands. I promised her that I would not cry, and that I would never give up.
Why We March Today
The battles my great-grandmother fought brought about immense progress, but today we find ourselves once again in an economic and political crisis. The state of Illinois, my home of nearly 30 years, is a particularly egregious example of this crisis.
Since Republican Governor Bruce Rauner took office in 2015, Illinois has gone without a budget for almost two years, a terrible first in U.S. state history.
A budget is not just a balance sheet: it is a moral agreement between a government and the people it serves, so Illinois' failure to deliver a budget is a moral failure.
The human cost of Illinois' failure to deliver a budget is profound. Nearly one million people lost access to critical services like mental health and addiction treatment, food and housing assistance, child welfare and senior services in the first year of the budget impasse.
In our second year without a budget, one in four human service agencies has had to eliminate programs after the stopgap budget measure expired in January. Illinois’ unpaid bills now exceed $13 billion, with a pension debt topping $119 billion.
Education has been jeopardized for students at every grade level. Schools and colleges across the state have been forced to lay off hundreds of staff members and close their doors early. Chicago State University laid off 300 employees this year after a 32-percent drop in enrollment. And as many as 18,000 low-income students may be unable to finish their degrees as the Monetary Award Program goes unfunded for a second year.
As we approach a third year with no budget solution, junk bond status threatens to further tank the financial stability of our state. Gov. Rauner has repeatedly refused to approve a budget without measures that would destroy Illinois’ workers’ compensation system and public sector unions. The list goes on and on.
Why We Are In Crisis
Illinois' problems didn’t start with Gov. Rauner. For decades, both parties have maintained one of the most regressive tax systems in the country: two-thirds of corporations don’t pay a penny of income tax to the state. Illinois’ constitution enshrines a flat income tax, meaning working people pay more than their fair share in taxes while the rich and big corporations pay less.
The state budget impasse has intensified a decades-long crisis of disinvestment and despair. Last year, more than 700 people in Chicago died from gun violence, the most in 19 years. Two of those that lost their lives were my loved ones.
In my 25 years as a registered nurse, I have seen far too many patients seek treatment when it’s too late because they couldn’t afford the medicine or healthcare they need to live.
As this crisis has deepened, robbing us of our loved ones and future, our elected officials on both sides of the aisle have continued to maintain that Illinois is broke, and that the only way we can balance the budget is by raising taxes on working class people while slashing investments in our communities.
What We Can Do Together
Illinois is not broke. We are one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the world. We have a gross state product exceeding $600 billion. The problem isn’t that we lack resources but that our resources are in the wrong hands.
Our statewide coalition, Fair Economy Illinois, has been fighting for a People & Planet First Budget for five years. By closing corporate tax loopholes and making the rich pay their fair share, our budget proposal would generate $23.5 billion in revenue for Illinois.
This is enough revenue to provide universal healthcare, sustainable energy, repair our infrastructure, increase our investment in pensions, fully fund schools from pre-K through high school, and offer free higher education at state colleges and universities.
Yes, it can be done.
This budget would also create tens of thousands of good jobs and put people back to work to do the things that will improve our lives and make our communities thrive.
We Are Who We’ve Been Waiting For
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.
With our March to Springfield, we are bringing the crisis to our capital and forcing our state legislature to deal with the budget impasse. The March to Springfield will also stop along the route for a series of listening tours to ask people in towns small and large what they need from our state.
We refuse to allow any narrative to divide us and will build a statewide base that has a vision for a state that provides every Illinoisan what they need to thrive.
We know - we are who we’ve been waiting for.
In the beautiful words of Erica Nanton, who is marching beside me today on the way to Springfield: We may never be able to bring back those we have already lost but we will never stand idly by as we keep losing more of the people we love.
Our loved ones - past, present, and future - are always in this struggle with us. We march for all of them, and for all of us.
Martese Chism is a registered nurse in the National Nurses United union and a long-time activist. She is marching to Springfield to advocate for access to health care and protection of the most vulnerable. Follow her journey on the March to Springfield Facebook page.