Progress Illinois: Cutbacks continue for Illinois service providers during state budget impasse

By Ellyn Fortino

It’s a new year, but a number of local service providers continue to operate in a state of limbo as the Illinois budget impasse drags into its seventh month.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic legislature remain at odds over a budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which began July 1.

While many state services and programs are being funded in part through laws, court orders or federal dollars during the ongoing budget standoff, others are going unfunded because the state is not authorized to spend money on them without a budget in place.

Senior meal programs are among those taking a hit during the impasse.

For example, a Meals on Wheels program serving over 700 seniors in DuPage County will be reduced from five to two days a week beginning January 11 due to the lack of a state budget. The DuPage Senior Citizens Council, which delivers the meals to seniors, also plans to cut 55 percent of its staff and close its community dining program next Monday because of the state budget situation.

As many as 1,500 total seniors participate in the Meals on Wheels and community dining programs on a daily basis, said Marylin Krolak, executive director of the DuPage Senior Citizens Council.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do. It just breaks my heart,” she said of the seniors who will be impacted by the program cuts. “We will make sure that we will work with our volunteers to visit them Monday through Friday to make sure they’re OK, but they need food.”

Krolak said there “might be some offers of local relief” to continue providing senior meals.

“Any money that comes in will, of course, be geared toward getting additional meals out to those seniors,” she stressed.

The Illinois budget stalemate revolves around Rauner’s efforts to win items on his “turnaround agenda” through the budgeting process. The governor wants reforms such as workers’ compensation changes, a property tax freeze and limits on collective bargaining before he will consider new revenues.

Democrats, who have supermajorities in both chambers, oppose many of Rauner’s proposals, especially those seeking to curb the power of unions. They want a budget that includes a combination of cuts and new revenue.

The legislature passed a Democrat-backed budget in May, but Rauner vetoed most of the spending plan, including all higher education appropriations, citing its nearly $4 billion shortfall.

Funding for the state’s Monetary Award Program (MAP), a need-based grant program that helps low-income Illinois students pay for tuition at more than 130 local colleges and universities, is also entangled in the Springfield budget standoff.

Victor Abarca, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said his spring semester MAP grant is at risk.

In an email last month from the university, Abarca said he and other MAP recipients were informed that their spring semester grant funds may not be credited to their accounts if the state does not allocate money for the program. Abarca, from Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, said he may also have to pay back the MAP money credited to his account for the fall semester.

“The MAP grant is a huge part of my financial aid,” he stressed, adding that he is worried about how he will afford college if he does not get the grant funds.

“I might have to drop out,” Abarca said.

Immigrant Services

The state’s Immigrant Services Line Item (ISLI) is another casualty of the budget impasse.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) has 60 partner organizations that depend on the line item, state spending for which has not been authorized for the current fiscal year.

ISLI funds two key initiatives, including the Immigrant Family Resource Program, which assists immigrants in determining whether they are eligible for public benefits and enables the state to meet federally mandated language-access obligations.

The other program funded through ISLI, called the New Americans Initiative, provides citizenship application assistance and outreach.

“Over 102,000 clients this year will go without service as a result of these two programs being severely curtailed or completely being eliminated at certain organizations,” said Breandan Magee, ICIRR’s senior director of programs.

Additionally, immigrant service providers within ICIRR’s network have already laid off over 200 employees and another 100 positions are “severely at risk,” Magee said. Some of the laid off staffers are now working as volunteers at the various organizations, he said.

“This situation is unsustainable,” Magee said of the volunteers. “We do not expect it to last much longer if the budget impasse continues.”

SIDS Prevention Services

Another service provider relying on volunteers during the budget battle is the Lisle-based SIDS of Illinois organization — the only sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) prevention provider in the state.

The organization depends on state funding for about 70 percent of its annual budget and has been forced to eliminate all but one staff member.

SIDS of Illinois Executive Director Nancy Maruyama is the organization’s only paid employee and is drawing her salary from the group’s reserves. She is handling much of the educational outreach, bereavement support and other services at SIDS of Illinois. Volunteers are assisting with clerical work.

“The (educational outreach) that I’m doing right now is fairly local,” she said. “I can’t go downstate because I don’t have any money to rent a car or to stay overnight in a hotel or eat, unless I want to do it gratis.”

SIDS of Illinois has been unable to provide cribs to families in need because it has not received state dollars for the program.

“Our crib program is meant for those families who are really in desperate need,” Maruyama stressed. “Even though, generally speaking, you can get a basic pack-and-play portable crib at a big box store for probably 55, 60 bucks, that’s a lot of money for a family” struggling to afford basic necessities.

To help cover operational costs, SIDS of Illinois has turned to fundraising. About $25,000 has been donated to the organization since April.

“We’re shooting for $100,000, and we’ve got quite a ways to go,” Maruyama said.

SIDS of Illinois has also implemented what Maruyama called a “super austerity program.”

“(I’m) not buying anything. I keep the heat down really low (and) keep the lights off … to keep the utility bills down,” she said, adding that the group has also cut back on printing educational materials to save money.

“If I keep going at the rate I’m going, which is the super austerity program, we can probably get by for another 10 to 12 months,” Maruyama said. “But that’s with very, very basic services.”

Affordable Housing

Also caught up in the budget fight is more than $107 million in dedicated affordable housing funds, according to a recent analysis by housing advocacy groups.

Affordable housing funding is being accumulated in seven special state accounts, including the Illinois Affordable Housing Trust Fund, according to the analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), Housing Action Illinois and the Supportive Housing Providers Association.

Resources from those special funds could help meet the affordable housing needs of over 172,000 Illinoisans and create or preserve more than 14,600 affordable housing units in the state, the analysis showed.

“We urge Governor Rauner and the General Assembly to work together to pass legislation appropriating these dedicated funds as soon as the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2016,” Bob Palmer with Housing Action Illinois said in a statement.

Illinois lawmakers are slated to head back to Springfield on January 13 and legislative leaders could meet in the early part of this month. Rauner’s budget address for the 2017 fiscal year is scheduled for February 17.