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Democrats, Organizations Lash Out At Governor Over Cuts

Organization and business leaders say they were stunned by a Good Friday notice indicating state funding for some programs would be immediately terminated. Democrats say they were “blindsided” too.

Lawmakers say they thought the $1.6 billion supplemental appropriation package they approved in March was enough money to plug budget shortfalls — keeping some social service programs afloat — through the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. The legislation allowed the governor to pull “surplus” money from a variety of state funds, called for 2.25 percent across-the-board cuts for most state agencies and provided Rauner with cash to use at his discretion —a lump sum intended to mitigate the impact of cuts. A few areas, including spending on autism, mental health and other services — were meant to be spared from the reductions.

On Tuesday, legislators were asking administration why programs were notified April 3 that their state grants were being eliminated — 22 by the Department of Human Services and six by the Department of Public Health. The move blocked $3 million for the Autism Project and halted $6.9 million to pay for welfare recipients’ funerals and burials. Some Democrats say Rauner “breached the appropriation legislation.”

Senator Heather Steans says the General Assembly provided “sufficient funds” to cover program grants. The Chicago Democrat and chair of a Senate Appropriations Committee served as the Senate sponsor for the appropriation legislation. She says she sold the bills to her colleagues based on the spared programs. Steans says the social service cuts “undermine” the General Assembly’s authority, and added that had the supplemental appropriations legislation defunded some of the programs in question, it likely wouldn’t have passed.

Acting DHS Secretary Greg Bassi says his agency had to work with the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget to figure out how his agency would, financially, get through the rest of the fiscal year. He deferred to the budget office on some questions, but said he had painstakingly determined where DHS cuts would be made.

“It would be nice if we could fund all of these (programs). We’re stuck in the reality of our fiscal situation. It was a lengthy, difficult and thoughtful process to get at which particular grants we could suspend and still maintain our core services throughout the rest of this year,” Bassi told members of the joint Senate Appropriations Committee.

But Democratic senators grilled Bassi over why, in particular, the autism funding was cut, pointing out that legislators took care in the appropriations bill to keep that program’s funding in place. Officials at the Autism Project, headquartered at the Hope Institute in Springfield, say the program is one-of-a-kind.

“I felt good about my vote,” Sen. Dan Kotowski says. The Park Ridge Democrat says the appropriations legislation was “going to provide support for child care … and support, in particular for autism. It was a top priority.” He says “it was real kick in the gut” to send the notification on Good Friday and without more advance notice.

Bassi defends cutting the $1 million state aid to TAP. He stops short of calling the program “non-essential,” and explains there were other alternatives for participants, such as getting on the state’s waitlist for other autism-related programs. “Yes, this is one of the line items that needed to be suspended in order get through this year. It’s not the only autism services we provide. It’s one provider, and it’s one program,” Bassi says. “We can’t afford it this year.”

Republicans on the committee were aghast that Democrats oppose the grant terminations, pointing out that under former Gov. Pat Quinn, the legislature had only funded half the 2015 budget, leaving insufficient money to pay for all of the state’s social programs.

“If there’s no money, there’s no commitment,” says Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican from Palatine. “I’m struggling to try and understand what the point of this hearing is today.”

Senate President John Cullerton says the program cuts were unnecessary. Commenting on the situation from Chicago, he chalked the grant terminations up to Rauner being a neophyte. But he did say the governor was not going back on his word.

“In a budget of over $76 billion, $26 million is something that could have been managed. It’s something that could have been pushed into next year when we negotiated the fiscal ’16 budget,” says Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. “I think the governor’s … learning every day. He’s new. He’s never done this before. He didn’t know that much about state government before he got elected. You can get elected governor, apparently, without knowing much about state government.”

The grant cuts could serve as a “reality check” for the Democrats who supported the supplemental appropriation legislation, according to Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford. She says she has asked to meet with Rauner. The Maywood Democrat says she wants to talk to him about “commitment and keeping your word.”

Rhonda Gillespie is in the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at University of Illinois Springfield and covers state government and politics for Illinois Issues magazine. She was previously managing editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper and a reporter for other Chicago and national news, university and trade outlets. She can be reached at (217) 206-6524.
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