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Illinois budget impasse is a blame game with serious consequences for East St. Louis

Bill Kreeb, president and CEO of Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, and Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, public health administrator at the East Side Health District.
Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo

It has officially been 100 days without a budget in Illinois, said Amanda Vinicky, statehouse bureau chief at Illinois Public Radio. But the impasse between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled legislature predates that.

Rauner is the first Republican in the governor’s mansion in over a decade. He won election with a business-friendly, budget-balancing agenda and the quest to right the Illinois government’s past wrongs.

But he soon locked horns with the legislature over his ‘Turnaround Plan,’ which aimed to restrict public bargaining and legislative term limits and freeze property taxes, among other conservative goals. Ideological differences turned into rancorous personal attacks as the bad blood between Rauner and the legislature led to a state government standoff early this summer.

Vinicky acknowledged that on the surface, it’s difficult to determine what collective bargaining, term limits and property taxes have to do with passing a state budget. But in truth, it’s all about Rauner’s long-term agenda to make Illinois friendlier to business and more conservative in its finances.

“The governor says it is related, because all these things have been linked to what’s gone wrong in Illinois in the past,” Vinicky said. “And the only way that he’ll be able to get [his plan] through is if they agree to these demands. Basically, he’s using the budget as a negotiating tool.”

And while all of the politicking is taking place in Springfield, organizations in East St. Louis are keenly feeling the effects.

Though the legislature passed a budget earlier in the year, Vinicky said, it was not balanced, and Rauner promptly vetoed it—although an exception was made for education. Now, state funding proceeds by way of court orders, which require certain expenses to be paid.

While the state is still spending billions on education, government employee salaries and critical services, organizations providing human, health and social services are endangered. Many have made serious cuts.

In East St. Louis, the East Side Health District provides public and environmental health services for the region. It is heavily dependent on state funding for its programs in disease prevention, cancer screening, and child and family health. When money stopped flowing, public health administrator Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside had to make tough calls.

“I have laid off most of my staff,” she said frankly. “We’re working with just a minimal crew. I’m not seeing the total amount of clients that I’m supposed to see.” The only money she receives is federal; the state has not paid anything since the impasse began.

Bill Kreeb is president and CEO of Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, which provides health and human services for children and families in the area. “All of our staff have taken a 20 percent reduction in pay. We’ve laid off quite a few staff. And within the next 30 days, it’s estimated in the state that there could be as many to 50-75 agencies closing.” Nonprofits have used up their reserves, he said—now, things are going to get really bad.

“What’s really sad is that most of the state has approved all of these contracts for human services and social services,” Kreeb said. “We have signed contracts, but we haven’t been paid a dime since July 1st.”

Vinicky labeled this “selective harm.” The social and health services funded by court order are those that cannot legally be avoided, like Medicare and Medicaid. But many of the people for whom Lessie Bates Davis and East Side Health District provide services are not eligible, or unregistered, for those programs. And many of the programs themselves have been squeezed tightly for lack of funding, restricting the services they offer.

Schools may have a budget, for example, but school-based health centers may not. That means that some kids go without the immunizations and physicals they need in order to attend class. Basic WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) programs are provided for, but accompanying case management, pregnancy prevention and family health services are not. Domestic violence centers have closed; so have many drug treatment facilities.

Widespread belief has it that there will not be a budget in Illinois anytime this year.

It is “only a matter of time” before a disease outbreak of some kind, Patton-Whiteside said—the kind her office is supposed to prevent.

“This is just so frustrating, because we’re on the front line, having to provide services with no pay,” Patton-Whiteside said. “As Bill has said, they’ve had us sign contracts that stipulate that we will be paid, with no money. Right now, I’m running a month to month budget. If my health department should close, who is going to provide the services for the people? It seems like the common citizens are the ones who are really left out in these shenanigans.”

“For people who don’t depend on those services, it sounds bad,” Vinicky said. “But they aren’t really hit smack in the face with the reality of what government does, what it’s supposed to do, and what it should be doing, really.”

Unfortunately, Vinicky continued, it is highly unlikely that a budget is passed anytime soon. Widespread belief has it that there won’t be a budget in Illinois anytime this year. “It’s really a game of pointing fingers,” she said. “Public health departments are the hostages in this situation, and neither side is backing down.”

One reason for the inaction may be 2016; legislators are unlikely to take difficult votes prior to their reelection campaigns. And as they are not even meeting to discuss the impasse, Vinicky noted, compromise between Democrats and Republicans looks impossible right now.

Even more damning, Vinicky said, is the fact that after this standoff, voters are unlikely to stand for any tax increases to boost revenue. “The state is spending more than it’s expected to take in. So in addition to not having a budget, we’re also on the road to a deficit.”

Kreeb, who began a letter-writing campaign to Governor Rauner and local legislators when cuts to his programs were first threatened in April, just wants the impasse to end. “I would just ask the legislature and the governor to get together and please don’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

Patton-Whiteside concurred. “Pass the budget. Stop playing, and pass the budget.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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