“If it bleeds it leads.”

That catchy trope, coined decades ago to capture the ethos of TV news, where I worked for years as a political reporter, still makes me cringe because it implies the best way to attract viewers and boost ratings is by shocking, not informing.

Disquieting?  Yes, but arguably true.  Most of us choose compelling video of raging fires, car crashes and tragedies, even when they don’t affect us personally, over panel discussions featuring experts discussing issues that impact our quality of life.

That’s why a majority of Illinois residents aren’t paying close attention to the budget stalemate in Springfield, which is intensely political, ideological and consequential, but doesn’t directly affect enough of us to spark an uprising.

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We hear that some college students aren’t getting financial aid, some public colleges and universities are running low on cash, and some social service agencies can’t help everyone who needs assistance, but it hasn’t reached critical mass yet.

There’s no bleeding, so it’s not leading.

Even so, fallout from the budget impasse—up to now and down the road, if it drags on—should be deeply disturbing to anyone who reviews statistics compiled recently by our good government colleagues at Reboot Illinois:

  • 177 layoffs at Eastern Illinois University.
  • 70 human service agencies in Southern Illinois cutting programs.
  • 23 counties suspending efforts to reduce juvenile incarceration.
  • 84,000 seniors losing Meals on Wheels and other outreach.
  • 15,000 women losing access to cervical and breast cancer screening.
  • 130,000 epileptics losing treatment.
  • 57,000 police officers losing training.
  • A $6.2 billion increase in state debt by June 30.
  • $25 billion in unpaid bills by 2019.

And that’s just a partial list.

The numbers reflect real people impacted to varying degrees, but not enough of them, and not enough pain yet, to force our Springfield leaders to break the impasse.

Fortunately, the protracted stalemate has prompted a bipartisan group of restless rank-and-file lawmakers to quietly craft a budget compromise they’ll be releasing shortly.

They discussed the issues in general terms last week at a forum co-hosted by our friends at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and Truth in Accounting, and one attendee opined later that if those legislators had their way, “the Illinois budget impasse would have been over long ago.”

Maybe, but Greg Goldner, one of Chicago’s savviest political consultants, drafted a comprehensive budget plan months ago that included detailed spending cuts, revenue increases and pro-business reforms—the long-cited keys to a final agreement— but it’s been on a shelf gathering dust since then, along with a Civic Federation proposal, and the legislative initiative could meet a similar fate.

  So what traumas or dramas might compel our Springfield leaders to cut a deal? 

  • Chicago State University actually shutting down, as threatened, at the end of the month? 
  • Failure to fund K-12 education next school year? 
  • Payless paydays for state workers if the courts say no more paychecks without a legislative appropriation?

Any of those sparks could ignite a settlement fire if they’re accompanied by more yelling, screaming and other forms of public pressure than we’ve seen so far.

But sadly, it may also take a high-visibility human tragedy that’s directly or even indirectly connected to the state’s failure to adequately protect our most vulnerable residents.

I’m not rooting for someone to bleed, but that, realistically, might be what it takes to finally get our top elected officials to lead.