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Illinois Issues: The Impasse And The Damage Done

Democratic leaders in the legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner appear to be close to a deal to approve some funding for social service providers, higher education, capital construction and state operations. The proposal would also fund K-12 schools for all of next fiscal year.

But the plan can’t erase the destruction caused by the state going for a year without a budget.??

Analysis - You likely woke up this morning to headlines declaring that, after a year, Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative leaders are finally nearing an agreement on the budget.

If this apparent truce bears fruit today, it might be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief in the hope that the state’s budget crisis is finally over.

After all, you have to be sick of hearing about it. Nobody could blame you if you are tired of trying to process the sad stories of vulnerable people who have lost the services they depend on to have some quality of life. Tired of worrying about whether the university in your area will continue keeping its doors open — or even if your local elementary schools will open in the fall. Tired of listening to the talking points and back-and-forth barbs traded between the state’s leaders as Illinois once again sinks into laughingstock territory.

If you’re directly affected by the impasse and concerned for your job or the well being of a loved one, you’re more than tired of the situation. You’re scared, sad and angry.

It’s understandable that most people in Illinois are probably suffering from impasse fatigue. But the crisis isn’t over — not by a long shot.

The deal they are working on will only allow the state to limp along until after the general election — putting off the tough choices of raising taxes and making cuts for another day. And it will not undo the harm that the lack of a budget has done. Illinois will be recuperating from those injuries for years to come.

“What we really need, long term, in the state of Illinois is fiscal soundness. We need both. Right? We do need a budget appropriated for Fiscal (Year) 2016.  We need the right budget appropriated for Fiscal (Year) 2017,” says Wendy DuBoe, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. “We need strong fiscal polices to make the state as strong as it can be.”

Credit flickr/ stockmonkeys.com
The budget deal would offer a lifeline to areas of government that have seen little or no funding in the past year, but it would not fully rescue the state from its fiscal crisis.

  A recent survey the United Way conducted of social services providers found that an estimated 1 million of their clients have lost services in the past year because of the lack of a state budget. More than 400 agencies that receive support from the United Way responded to the survey. Nearly all respondents said they had reduced the number of people they serve and a majority said they could not meet the “basic needs” of their clients in the last fiscal year.

These organizations are in such bad shape because they have continued to provide services under contracts with the state but haven’t gotten paid for them. “Providers have basically been fronting our state government money since July,” says Emily Miller, director of policy and advocacy for Voices for Illinois Children, a group that lobbies on behalf of social service providers. “We’ve been borrowing from nonprofit social service providers in order to fund our basic government functions.”

 DuBoe says the United Way estimates that the state owes at least $500 million for services rendered for the fiscal year that ends tomorrow. DuBoe described that estimate as “conservative.” Both Miller and DuBoe agree that social service agencies need an infusion of cash, like the one that could come with a stopgap budget deal. But this emergency money will not solve the problem.

Even if lawmakers approve and the governor signs into law money for these providers, it is unlikely to be enough to cover those costs and the amount they would typically be given for half of the upcoming fiscal year. But, assume that it was. That still wouldn’t be enough to put the state’s safety net back where it was a year ago. Providers have cut staff and programs. In January, Lutheran Social Services announced that it would layoff 750 staff members and close 30 programs cutting services to 4,700 people. The group was the largest provider in the state, and its cutbacks were the highest-profile announcement. But the same story has been playing out at small entities throughout the state.

No matter what lawmakers and the governor do to get the state through another six months, those employees and programs are not coming back overnight.

“If you strip funding, and you eliminate the availability of those services, you can’t just turn around and start having money flow again and have that service jump back on its feet,” Miller says. “Once these systems are gone, once we have intentionally disinvested in them, we don’t get to just snap our fingers and have them back again.”

Institutions of higher education have also continued to carry out their missions with little financial help from the state. Emergency funds approved to stave off the closure of Chicago State University means that community colleges and universities are probably in better shape than social service providers, but for some, not by much. 

University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen says the impasse has already caused students and faulty to leave Illinois schools.

Catie Witt is going to be student body president when she goes back to Eastern Illinois University as a senior in the fall. She is also a recipient of Monetary Award Program grant to help cover her tuition costs. Witt is among the thousands of low-income students who have to worry about whether they will be able to afford school because the state may or may not pay for the grants. “I am entering my senior year not knowing if I will be able to afford my last year if the map grants aren’t funded.” 

This uncertainty has left Illinois administrators wondering if they might lose students to states that can offer more stability. Applications for MAP grants dropped by 13 percent this year. “The damage is already showing. Illinois students are choosing out of state university due to the ongoing uncertainty here at home,” says Timothy Killeen, president of the University of Illinois. “Some of these young people may never return to share their talents here.”

Resignations are up from last year when compared to the two years before, according to Killeen.  “Faculty are also looking elsewhere,” he says says. No matter what happens now with the state budget, Illinois will not get those students and staff back. The reputations of the state’s institutions of higher learning have also been dealt a blow. Larry Dietz, president of Illinois State University, says that instead of being able to sell prospective students on all the school has to offer, “now we try to convince families that our doors will stay open, that we can afford to maintain our facilities, that we will honor Monetary Awards Program Grants and that classes and programs won’t be canceled on short notice.”  

A widely supported plan for improving policy in the state has been put on hold over the past year and will likely continue to be stunted over the next fiscal year. Shortly after Rauner came into office, he announced his intent to cut the state’s prison population by a quarter over the next decade percent. While there is not consensus on every aspect of how to reach this target, the goal has been applauded by observes of all political stripes — basically anyone familiar with Illinois’ overcrowded, crumbling prison system and high rate of recidivism.  But the lack of a budget has meant no funding for programs, such as Redeploy Illinois, which has proven to keep people out of prisons and save the state money.

Credit Melissa Heil / Illinois Atlas of Austerity
Illinois Atlas of Austerity
One of the maps in the Illinois Atlas of Austerity, which visualizes the impact of the budget impasse, focuses on the effects felt by local health departments.

“Illinois’ unending budget impasse effectively prevents our state from engaging in much needed and desired bipartisan criminal justice reform that, if implemented, would reduce costs and increase public safety and reentry success,” Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the criminal justice watchdog, the John Howard Association, said in a written statement. “Illinois is abandoning cost-saving and life-improving change.  This, in turn, will increase the expensive and ineffective use of incarceration, which Illinois cannot afford and does not want.” 

The impasse has also resulted in the laying off of staff and closure of local public health facilities. These county public health departments provide immunizations, HIV testing and cancer screenings and are the first line of response if there is an emergency, such as a pandemic or a release of anthrax. It has also lead the state to cut conservation officers, who are tasked with enforcing hunting and fishing laws and protecting Illinois wildlife, and the list goes on. For a comprehensive look at the impact of the impasse, one need only check out the Illinois Atlas of Austerity. Melissa Heil, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, mapped the effects, and the resulting visualizations are grim.

The last year has had another potentially lasting effect on Illinois in the form of its credit rating. The state didn’t exactly have a stellar rating heading into this mess, but it has only gotten worse. Downgrades earlier this month left the rating teetering on junk status, and the bond houses pointed directly to the impasse when they slapped Illinois with the demotions. Illinois still got favorable rates when it went to the bond market. But rates are historically low, and one expert says the state could have gotten a much better deal with a decent credit rating.

It will take time to rebuild the rating, and putting off raising taxes and making cuts will not help convince the bond rating agencies that the state’s leaders are committed to crafting a budget that works. Using gimmicks like not repaying borrowing from state funds to help put off that decisions will likely also not earn Illinois any fiscal responsibility gold stars. 

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform calls the state's budget impasse the "worst in the U.S. by far" in terms of how long it has gone on.

It’s often been said but it’ worth repeating that the longer this takes, the worse it will get. The more months that pass by, the more overdue bills the state will rack up. The backlog is already at a point where it will take multiple fiscal years to pay down. “We’ve got to figure out how to get enough new revenue in to sort of stop the bleeding and to put the state on a path to being fiscally sound again. And that’s not going to happen overnight,” Miller says. “It’s going to take a couple years to dig our way out of this. But every day that goes by that we don’t address it is another day to add to the debt. And it’s so irresponsible to continue to do this, and it’s so irresponsible to think that people are going to wait until after the general election to address it.”

The highest price for the budget impasse, and the one that cannot be repaid, is the human cost. It’s also a cost we will probably never know the total of, in part, because the effect weighs most heavily on those we often choose not to see. “The folks that feel that loss the most are real people and communities, particularly those that are most vulnerable — communities of color, communities that live in poverty,” Miller says. “There is no quick comeback for them.”

Credit flickr/ Dafne Cholet
The human cost of going for a year without a budget will probably never be measured.

How many low-income students opted not to go to college because of the MAP grant uncertainty? How many families were strained by the worry over lost jobs? How many people lost mental health care and had to be hospitalized or end up in the criminal justice system? How many victims of sexual assault didn’t receive help at a time when the needed more than they ever have? How many addicts hit rock bottom, took the brave and difficult step of seeking help only to be told they would spend months on a waiting list before they could get treatment? How many people ended living up on the streets? 

How many people slipped through the cracks? How many died?

So far, only one has been documented.In a letter toRauner, an advocacy group spelled out the consequences of long waiting lists for social services. “Regarding the waiting list, many of these individuals usually end up in more expensive emergency rooms, hospital inpatient facilities, jails or, even, dead. Yes, dead,” wrote Marvin Lindsey, chief executive officer of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association. “In one instance for example, since the budget impasse began, a parent called a substance use provider to tell the agency that they could remove her son from the waiting list because he had died from an overdose.”

Illinois Issuesis in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issuesis produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

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