Politics: Second thoughts are warranted on the governor's final spending plan

Mar 1, 2002

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

In proposing a $52.8 billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, Gov. George Ryan issued a warning to the Illinois General Assembly: Go beyond my bottom line, and I’ll veto the entire budget.

“You can take that to the bank,” he told lawmakers assembled in joint session to hear his fourth and final State of the State and budget address.Unlike the upbeat air of Ryan’s three previous budget proposals, his spending blueprint for fiscal year 2003 was mostly gloom and doom, cutting almost 4,000 state jobs, slashing health care spending and even paring almost $60 million in state outlays for elementary and secondary education.

Though painful, the cuts were needed to bring state spending back in line with revenues decimated by recession and the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Ryan argued. “If you don’t like my suggested reductions in spending, tell me your alternatives,” he added. “But remember, at the end of the day, the budget must be balanced. We cannot spend more than our revenues will allow.”

Even if lawmakers accept the governor’s premise — remember, the state has posted budgetary deficits in 14 of the last 21 years and will do so again in FY 2002 — second thoughts seem particularly warranted in several areas:

• Mental health. The governor wants to close a mental health center in Peoria and downsize other facilities in Elgin and Rockford, sending more than 200 residents to other state hospitals or placing them in community settings. 

Moving folks out of large state institutions into small group homes may be a sound idea, but, in the past, mentally ill and developmentally disabled residents have been removed from state hospitals before adequate community services were in place. Budget aides say Ryan’s plan includes more than $17 million for community-based treatment for those leaving, but local agencies might wonder whether that’s enough.

• Medicaid. Ryan wants to extend health care benefits to the working poor and to expand prescription drug assistance for low-income seniors, all without putting any further strain on the general funds. He’s asking federal administrators to allow Illinois to use unspent dollars from KidCare — a health insurance program for low-income youngsters — to provide coverage for their parents. 

The feds already have approved SeniorCare, a Ryan proposal to help underwrite the costs of most drugs and medical supplies for those 65 and older with incomes up to twice the federal poverty level, or about $17,200 for a single person and $23,220 for a couple. To pay for the program, the budget earmarks $166 million in tobacco settlement funds and $27 million in general revenue, which is expected to leverage $100 million in federal reimbursements.

Trends aside - and officials actually expect the adult prison population to grow by more than 800 next year - cramming Vienna's 1,100 felons into another prison will exacerbate already serious prison crowding.

  At the same time, however, Ryan wants to reduce the state’s overall Medicaid liability by more than $500 million by cutting the rates the state pays to such health care providers as doctors, dentists, pharmacists and nursing homes, all the while main- taining coverage for a full range of care. By refusing to pay the full cost of treatment, however, the state runs the risk that some practitioners might refuse to see patients with Medicaid or Family Care coverage. A year ago, for example, Walgreen Co. threatened to reduce pharmacy hours in poor neighborhoods when Ryan tried to slash the fees pharmacies receive for filling Medicaid prescriptions. The drugstore chain relented after budget negotiations produced milder cuts, but an individual doctor well might decide to stop seeing poor patients once the state cuts the fee for an office visit — already well below what a patient would pay out of his or her own pocket — by 10 percent.

• Prisons. The governor proposes closing an adult prison in Vienna and a juvenile facility in St. Charles, shipping inmates to other correctional centers. Budget documents say “moderating population trends” and new prisons opening elsewhere make it possible to shutter Vienna and Valley View, which officials characterize as old, inefficient and costly to maintain. Trends aside — and officials actually expect the adult prison population to grow by more than 800 next year — cramming Vienna’s 1,100 felons into other prisons will exacerbate already serious prison crowding. Indeed, as Ryan prepared to address lawmakers, Department of Corrections officials reported almost 14,000 more inmates than the system — including a new prison at Lawrenceville — was designed to hold. Ironically, despite a building binge that has seen new prisons opened at the rate of almost one a year for the past quarter century, prison crowding is worse now than when the groundbreaking began — some 45 percent above ideal capacity in mid-February, compared to 34 percent in 1978. In the past, corrections officials have worried that crowding might lead to a federal judge running the prisons, a concern that closing Vienna won’t allay.

• Schools. Ryan wants to eliminate funding for 22 specific education programs and shift the $500 million savings into general state aid in order to boost the per-pupil foundation level to a record $5,000. Local school districts, rather than state bureaucrats, should decide how best to use the money, the governor argues.

But some of the targeted programs were created because lawmakers thought them important enough that all school districts should offer them. Bilingual education, for example, must be provided by law in any school at which 20 or more students speak the same language other than English. Intended to help non-English speakers keep pace, the program consists of English as a second language and native language instruction in academic areas. With the mandate removed, and absent the $62.5 million now earmarked to cover the costs, would local school boards continue to offer bilingual education, or would non-English speaking kids be on their own?

Other areas merit scrutiny, of course. But as lawmakers examine the fine print of the governor’s proposal, their goal should be clear: to make sure the final product meets the needs of the state’s residents. 



Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, March 2002