Service agencies ask for budget mercy

Service agencies ask for budget mercy

SPRINGFIELD – A coalition of Illinois human service providers urged lawmakers not to cut their budgets disproportionately, and not to use more conservative revenue figures being advanced by House Democrats.

But the arguments against budget cuts came as the state comptroller said that Illinois likely will end this budget year with about $8.3 billion in unpaid bills and obligations – about the same level as a year ago, despite a 67 percent income tax increase.

House committees have begun setting budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1 based on revenue projections of $33.2 billion. The Senate, however, is using the Legislature's bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability revenue estimates of $34.3 billion.

"The governor has proposed a budget for the coming year of $35.2 billion in spending. That's short on revenue," admitted Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and an advocate of lessened human service cuts. "The big question is, how short on revenue?"

Martire said COGFA projections over the last decade have been 98.6 percent accurate. But the House revenue estimates, he said, "apparently are the result of a political compromise, reached between Democrats and Republicans concerned about overspending."

He admitted "any concern about being fiscally responsible is a good thing. The problem is, don't let a political compromise stand in the way of reality, especially when reality would mean significant cuts to your general fund."

The House revenue projections will force $2 billion more in cuts from education, health care, human services and public safety, he said.

"Illinois can't afford to make unnecessary cuts in any of those lines," he said. "We as a state have devastated funding for human services for well over a decade. In fact when you adjust for inflation and population growth, today's level of investment in human services as already proposed in the budget without cuts is well over $2 billion less than it was 10 years ago."

And Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed human services budget is $389 million less than last year's budget, Martire said.

Demonstrating how grim the budget outlook had become, a number of representatives from social service agencies argued not just against unnecessary cuts in their services but for cuts in other state programs.

The state has a "significant funding bias" for institutional care, said Carlissa Puckett of the Springfield-based Sparc of Illinois, to the detriment of community-based services. While the latter groups are slated for a $73 million cut, state-operated institutions get a 9 percent, $27 million increase.

"This is why we talk about equity," Puckett said. "We understand the need for potential cuts, but they should be equitable."

Sean Black, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said funds for rape crisis centers are being cut while the budget for the program to monitor and treat sex offenders is slated for a $1.7 million increase

"I would simply ask that we think about the victims instead of the rapists," Black said. "We're not asking this program be devastated. All we're asking is the money that is proposed to be cut from rape crisis services not be cut, and taken from a program like this. Change your priorities."

But the pleas for moderated spending cuts also came on the day when State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka warned that the state will end the current fiscal year with $8 billion in unpaid bills and other obligations.

"After years of hand-wringing about the state's finances and deficit spending, here we are looking to end yet another fiscal year in the red," said Topinka. "The prescription for our financial recovery is simple: Stop spending more than we bring in. But sadly that has still not occurred."

Two local Republican state representatives endorsed the idea of hewing to the more conservative revenue estimate.

"I've told everyone the same thing," said Rep. Jason Barickman, R-Champaign. "We need to use conservative numbers. I'm comfortable with the House number that we have adopted. At the end of the day if we're too conservative it gives us the opportunity to pay down bills or to not spend the taxpayers' dollars. There's a lot of people out there who wish we would think that way."

Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said that "the reason we're in this mess is because over the last decade we've budgeted every last penny. There's been nothing set aside. What business in America says we're going to spend every last penny that we're going to have?"

Rose added that when unspent money is used to pay bills, human service providers will benefit by getting long-owed money.

"It's a prudent budget," he said. "I'll bet you any human service agency in the state would never spend every last penny on the front end of what they expect to have."