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Programs Set To Resume After Grants Restored

Jaegar Moore

 Some social service agencies and funeral homes are set to resume business as they had before the now-infamous Good Friday elimination of several state grants.

Gov. Bruce Rauner aides announced Thursday that the state received an unexpected influx of tax revenue that will be used to restore the $26 million in grant suspensions. The money will fund programs such as support for those with autism and epilepsy, indigent burials and utility assistance.

The aide said that the money being restored for the remained of this fiscal year, which runs to June 30, doesn’t guarantee the programs will be funded in next year’s budget.

Leaders of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and some of the people it helps were in Springfield earlier this week lobbying lawmakers and Rauner to restore the organization’s $3.4 million grant. The immigration services provider got word April 3 – along with nearly two dozen other organizations – that due to a cash shortfall, state aid was immediately stopped.  

“We are happy that Gov. Rauner has heard the voices of immigrants and other vulnerable communities to restore these crucial programs,” ICIRR spokesman Fred Tsao says.

Funeral directors like Spencer Leak Jr. immediately recalled 2012 images of stacked bodies at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office when word came earlier this month that state funding for indigent burials ceased. Three years ago, a similar budget pinch led then-Gov. Pat Quinn to defund the Department of Human Services program. Funeral homes stopped picking up bodies from hospitals and nursing homes. So the county took custody of the corpses but had no money to bury them – or ample room to store them.

Leak says reinstating the FY15 funding averts a crisis like that, and gives families more options.

“We’re certainly appreciative to the governor and lawmakers for restoring [the indigent burial funding], giving many of the families that we serve hope that they can now bury their loved ones with some type of dignity and respect,” Leak says.

In the weeks since the funeral and burial grant dried up, Leak says he had to ask poor families to pay some portion of loved one’s final expenses. He said people had expected they would get aid to help with the funeral and burial costs. “We had to give them the bad news that they could not,” Leak says. But the funeral home didn’t turn poor people away. Leak says he instead lowered prices to work with them.

The funeral director says his establishment annually helps 300 to 400 families through the indigent funeral and burial program. The grant suspension would have cost his business at least $100,000, he says, and for the first time, Leak and Sons would have been considering layoffs.

Money for heating and energy assistance was depleted in over five dozen counties when notice came April 3 that the program wouldn’t get more funds, according to a spokesman for the Low Income Heating and Energy Program. Some 130,000 to 150,000 residents depend on help from the program to pay their electric and heating bills.

Thursday’s announcement restored funding to LIHEAP.

“LIHEAP continues to be a vital program that is part of the safety net ensuring the health and safety of our families in Illinois. We need the state LIHEAP program because federal funding is not nearly adequate to address the utility needs of working families that are still in poverty, as well as seniors and persons with disabilities who are on fixed incomes,” LIHEAP spokesman Dalitso Sulamoyo says.

The Good Friday news of the grant elimination caused a groundswell of outrage – among agency leaders and people who depend on social services help, as well as elected officials – and caught many off guard. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan appointed a panel of lawmakers to look into why the programs were cut even after passage of an appropriations package many lawmakers thought had solved the problem.

Some on the committee question whether the Rauner administration may have cut the programs in order to have leverage for upcoming FY16 budget negotiations. Almost all of the programs hit by the April 3 suspension – and Thursday’s reinstatement – are set to receive substantially less or even zero funding next year.

“Hopefully we won’t be back in this same situation again,” Leak says. 

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.