CHICAGO — As Illinois enters its second month without a budget, thousands of families find themselves without access to child care and other state services while Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats remain gridlocked over a $6 billion financial gap which threatens to shut down state facilities.
On July 1, legislators missed the deadline to pass the state’s budget, effectively cutting off crucial state and federal funding to health and child care providers in addition to compromising aid slated to a host of other state services, including programs that help the disabled and homeless.
But the budget mess really started in January when the state’s 2011 temporary income tax hike was rolled back, creating an almost $4 billion financial hole.
Recently, some state support has come in for health care services. On July 31, in the wake of a federal ruling, the state announced it would free up Medicaid payments for all health care providers serving children. In essence, that ruling opened the door to much-needed federal funds for many hospitals and health care providers across the state.
On Chicago’s South Side, home to many African-Americans, hospitals like Roseland and St. Bernard, which depend heavily on Medicaid reimbursements, were on the verge of major staff cuts and, in Roseland’s case, closure. On July 29, workers gathered outside Chicago’s Thompson Center in 90-degree heat to protest Roseland’s closure.
Roseland worker Onzell Brown, a short African-American woman with tight blonde curls, stepped up to the podium and spoke to the crowd about why Roseland, which first opened in 1924, deserved to be kept open.
“I’m here today, because for too long, Roseland Hospital has served as a political football for prideful people who have turned their backs on this community,” she said.
“When they want our votes, they claim that Black lives matter. But when it comes time to deliver for workers, for people who are hurting, for the African-American community, it turns out they are more interested in the health and welfare of corporations,” said Brown, 58, who stands to lose her job if the state fails to reach a budget compromise.
For now, Roseland and St. Bernard can now temporarily continue to operate until legislators pass a budget.
But the same relief hasn’t come for child care services. As of early August, CEDA WIC, a federally-funded program which provides food vouchers to low-income mothers and children, had to suspend some of its services, including medical care and formula for sick infants.
A child care referral agency in southern Illinois announced it would close its doors Aug. 7 until a budget agreement had been reached.
Unity Parenting & Counseling Inc., a Chicago-based child welfare agency which receives state dollars, has already gone more than a month without the $25,000 needed to cover a shelter for homeless teens.
“The state money helps us pay rent. And landlords don’t really want promises,” said Flora Koppel, Unity’s executive director. “I’ll really have to look at how we’ll survive if the money’s not coming.”
In February, Rauner proposed his own budget, which called for no new revenue and large cuts in Medicaid, transportation and higher education. Both the governor’s plan and a Democratic budget were ultimately rejected. As a result, Rauner’s administration outlined $820 million in various temporary spending cuts, some of which have already been implemented.
One program affected by the cuts was the state’s Child Care Assistance Program. Where before, a family of three making just over $37,000 per year would be considered eligible for state aid, that same family would now only be eligible with a combined income of just over $10,000.
For parent Nicole Vaughn, a single mom raising three children on the city’s South Side, that change means that her $13 per hour salary no longer qualifies her for state assistance. Under the new standards, she’d have to pay $180 per week for day care for her four-year-old daughter Daisy.
“When I first heard that, I literally sat in the director’s office and I was bawling. The tears were just coming because I was like, ‘How am I gonna make that work?’” she said. “We’re hardworking parents trying to make a living and trying to survive on the little bit of money that we do make.”
At a recent rally in Chicago, members of both the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus and Child Care Advocates United, an association of about 300 Illinois child care providers, called on Rauner to find additional revenue. So far, the governor has not offered up any new revenue solutions.
Illinois Action for Children estimates that, of all new families applying for aid through the Child Care Assistance Program, roughly 90 percent will be denied under the current requirements. That number just isn’t sustainable for Louis Falk, the director of child care at Erie Neighborhood House, which serves Chicago’s Southwest Side.
If the eligibility requirements don’t change, Falk estimates Erie will lose 25 percent of currently enrolled families.
“This is gonna harm children and it’s gonna harm the hardworking custodial parents. These are low-income families,” Falk said. “We’ve been calling our legislators and we’ve been signing off saying that we’re not going along with this.”
How Did We Get Here?
Soon after Rauner announced his budget proposal in February, Democrats who control the state Legislature countered with their own solution–a spending plan, including some cuts but ultimately $4 billion short. Democrats were hoping to negotiate with Rauner over filling that hole with new revenue.
However, despite their plan passing through both houses, the governor vetoed most of that budget, except the component involving public school and early education funding.
Since then, a stalemate of finger pointing and partisan arguments has gripped the Illinois Legislature. Rauner has said he won’t engage in talks about revenue unless Democrats consider business-friendly measures.
Those include a property tax freeze and workers compensation restrictions, in addition to a politically-charged cap on legislative term limits. Democrats have said they’re open to the property tax freeze but would want it coupled with school funding reform.
State Sen. Emil Jones III of Chicago, who loudly decried the budget standstill’s effect on Roseland Hospital, said the governor’s playing a losing game with state-funded services.
“What [Rauner’s] been pushing is a corporate agenda that has nothing to do with our state budget and our state operations,” Jones said at a July 29 rally for Roseland.
Politics aside, the state also faces structural issues in that legislators continue to budget money faster than dollars are generated to support it, according to a recent study from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at University of Illinois at Chicago. The institute found that, without real policy changes, the state’s annual deficit will ultimately reach $14 billion by 2026.
David Merriman, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in state budget policy, said it’s outrageous that the state has yet to deliver a balanced budget.
“It’s completely unprecedented. I don’t even know how the government’s functioning the way it is,” Merriman said.
“You’ve got a governor who has said he very much wants to cut the size of government and the cuts that have actually been implemented so far seem very painful,” he said. “So it’s unlikely that Democrats or for that matter, a lot of Republicans, would agree with those cuts.”
After missing July’s deadline, legislators have no timeline to balance the state budget. Last week, Rauner’s office sent notices to public-employee unions announcing that more than 171 state workers would be laid off Sept. 30 due to the budget crisis. Many of those workers are also employed at the Illinois State Museum, which Rauner has also targeted for closure.
Neither Rauner’s office nor Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office returned requests for comment on the budget standstill.
But some legislators are taking action to provide support. Last week, lawmakers in the state Senate passed legislation that would reverse Rauner’s eligibility changes with regard to child care providers.
The state Senate also has passed a budget bill backed by the Rauner administration that would release federal dollars to some state programs.
The amendment, co-sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton and state Sen. Daniel Biss of Chicago would provide almost $5 billion in federal relief to nutritional programs for women, infants and children and programs supporting victims of domestic violence and individuals living with disabilities, among other services.
The House still needs to approve this bill, which could happen as early as next week. If it were to pass and get Rauner’s signature, an agency like CEDA WIC, the food voucher program for low-income mothers and children, could then receive money within a matter of days.
“Unfortunately, all the federal money that we make use of in the state of Illinois has been kind of held hostage by the budget stalemate,” said Biss. “It’s so blatant, the idea that we’d literally be harming infants and mothers of infants and children who are in a time of need. It’s crazy and harmful and unnecessary.”
But, Biss said, he has no sense of a state budget compromise in the immediate future.
“I think we’re nowhere near close enough. There’s still a really fundamental stalemate going on, and I don’t think it’s obvious how quickly it will be resolved.”
Chloe Riley is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, The Guardian and DNAinfo. The top image shows a rally to keep Chicago’s Roseland Community Hospital open. The hospital is located in an area that is home to many African-Americans. Photo by Chloe Riley for Equal Voice News.
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