Christmas came early last month for some of Illinois’ public servants, with mixed results.
Two high-profile officials making career changes received handsome going away presents to help smooth their transitions. The beneficiaries of the holiday good will were outgoing state Schools Superintendent Glenn “Max” McGee and retiring state Rep. Andrea Moore, a Libertyville Republican.
McGee was given a six-month, $125,000 consulting contract by the State Board of Education, the same folks who pushed him out the door last summer.
Moore, who announced she would not seek a fifth term as a $66,000-a-year state representative, was named deputy director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, a $96,000-a-year job that had been vacant since at least 1994.
Golden parachutes are neither new nor unique to Illinois, of course. But Santa was not so kind to many other public servants of the rank-and-file variety, nor to some of those who care for the state’s less fortunate citizens. For them, the jolly old elf seemed more like Ebeneezer Scrooge before Marley’s visit, eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line. Written there, said Gov. George Ryan, was the need to cut state spending by some $500 million this year to offset revenue shortfalls due to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
So among those getting lumps of coal in their stockings, figuratively speaking, were 60,000 state workers who were told they’d lose a day’s pay to free up some $8 million. Faring even worse were employees at the Joliet Correctional Center and at the Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education, both of which were being closed. Aides to civilly committed, mentally ill patients at the Elgin Mental Health Center and workers in food and housekeeping at all state mental health and correctional facilities also saw visions of pink slips, not sugar plums, at Yuletime. Closing the centers and cutting the programs should save about $12 million, Ryan aides said, while displaced workers would be offered other state jobs to avoid layoffs.
The axe fell most heavily, though, on the poor and the hospitals that care for them, after House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, refused to give Ryan authority to spread the pain more broadly. The governor cut payments to Medicaid hospitals by $135 million and booted some 100,000 people from the state-federal health care program in hopes of saving another $17 million. Those remaining were told to pay $1 every time they go to the doctor, hospital or pharmacy.
Ryan also eliminated a planned $16 million cost-of-living increase for social service providers, and halted work on an $80-million genetic research facility at the University of Illinois. Funding was slashed as well for a host of other programs, ranging from violence prevention to museum grants.
The $485 million in cuts were decried by union leaders, hospital administrators and social service advocates. In particular, critics found it outrageous to cut health care for the poor while ignoring lawmakers’ pork barrel projects.
Ryan blamed the hospital-heavy cuts on lawmakers who refused to let him pare payments to other health care providers or to trim other programs.
The projects were spared, Ryan argued, because they are not being paid from the general revenue fund, the state account facing the shortfall, so “slicing any projects would not fill the budget hole,” he wrote in a letter sent to editors statewide.
“It is my hope the media will do a better job over the next few months to explain why these spending cuts are necessary,” he added, and “that other elected officials will resist the temptation to score cheap political points by condemning these budget-balancing actions without suggesting realistic alternatives.”
Ryan deserves some credit, of course, for biting the bullet while Madigan and other lawmakers sat on the sidelines, content to plan their campaigns while a governor who’s not running takes the heat.
But the governor’s version of events should be clarified on two points. First, the state’s budget problems started long before September 11. Ryan and legislative leaders knowingly chose to build this year’s budget on the rosiest revenue estimate available, despite warnings of a slowing economy. Tax receipts in July and August, the first two months of the current fiscal year, already were below projections. Spending, meanwhile, has grown steadily. Indeed, general funds spending outstripped revenues by some $475 million for the fiscal year that ended last June 30, and a $325 million drawdown already was projected for the current year last summer. So the state was in trouble long before the “post-September 11 world” that Ryan’s aides like to cite.
And while the governor is technically correct about funding for lawmakers’ pet projects, the pork should not be given a blanket exemption. True, some building projects are underwritten by bond sales, which can’t be diverted to shore up the general funds. Still, the budget has more than $209 million in projects financed by the Fund for Illinois’ Future, a special account fed with money from the general funds. As of mid-December, about $139 million remained unspent, available for shifting back into the general revenue fund, should lawmakers choose to do so.
The rub, of course, is that legislation is needed to use the pork money to restore some of the health care cuts. That would require cooperation from the same folks who stiffed the governor in November.
But even the go-it-alone cuts Ryan made won’t produce $485 million for the general funds without legislative assistance. The $80 million set for the genetics institute is tobacco settlement money, for example, while tens of thousands of state workers facing furloughs are paid from special funds. Savings in those areas can get into the general funds only through legislation to make the transfers.
When lawmakers return to the Capitol this month, they’ll have another chance to choose health care for poor people over pork barrel projects back home. The speaker and his colleagues should use it.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois Issues, January, 2002