Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Social service providers tell Rauner to pay up

By Mark Brown, Chicago Sun-Times columnist

After performing work for the State of Illinois for nearly a year without getting paid, a coalition of 64 social service providers filed suit Wednesday against Gov. Bruce Rauner and six of his agency directors.

The group, calling itself Pay Now Illinois, demanded immediate payment in full for more than $100 million owed for services performed under the organizations’ various state contracts.

These are the victims of the state budget impasse that I have been trying to tell you about for the last year: the human services providers that do the heavy lifting of helping people in need.

They are collapsing under the weight of not getting paid. And in a desperate attempt at survival, they’ve gone to Cook County Circuit Court.

What took them so long to file suit, you might well ask?

That’s a legitimate question with court orders having proved the one surefire way for other social service providers to continue to get paid during the budget battle between Rauner and Democratic leaders.

The answer is complicated.

There are a lot of reasons:

• Optimism, or at least hope, that a state budget deal between Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Legislature was just around the corner.

• Fear of biting the hand that feeds them and, in the process, getting crossways with the new governor.

• Pessimism that the courts can help, given language in their state contracts that says they will be paid when there is an appropriation, which there still isn’t.

Finally, though, they are forced to try.

“We had no other recourse. Nobody wanted to do this. We just can’t go on this way,” said Ric Estrada, president of Metropolitan Family Services, a coalition member owed nearly $2 million by the state.

The organization has already informed state officials and its own workers that it will discontinue four state programs serving 900 people if there is no state appropriation to fund them by June 30.

The programs slated for closing include small group homes for people with mental health issues, a counseling program for juveniles at risk of winding up in prison, mental health services for children under age 6 who have been the victims of severe trauma, and home visitation services for teenage mothers and their children.

Metropolitan Family Services operates other programs that have continued to receive state payments during the budget standoff because of federal court orders.

Estrada said state officials were disappointed to learn of his agency’s plan to halt the four programs and urged it to continue to provide the services.

“They said, ‘Couldn’t you pay for this privately?’” Estrada said.

Estrada had to explain that private donations, which the organization already solicits, couldn’t possibly cover the gap.

This is the point where somebody always writes me to say the wealthy Rauner should just pay for it himself.

Sorry, even he doesn’t have enough money to fill all the holes created by his intransigence on the budget.

Rauner spokesman Catherine Kelly naturally pointed in another direction.

“While we understand that frustration is driving many worthwhile organizations to seek solutions anywhere, including the courts, the only solution is for the General Assembly to pass a balanced, reform-oriented budget as soon as possible,” she said in a statement.

I’ve tried to explain all along that the groups going unpaid weren’t somehow singled out as being less worthy than the ones who were paid. They just fell victim to the vagaries of the situation, in which the state is required to continue providing some services under prior federal court orders but not others.

These services are important, too, and the money is owed.

Unfortunately, as much as I think the organizations are only requesting what is fair, their court argument strikes me as legally dubious.

If nothing else, maybe their long-shot effort will force more people to pay attention.