We've Got Two Weeks

Until last Friday, it appeared that — even in the midst of Illinois’ financial disaster — our state legislators would adjourn early. But despite their best efforts to “get out of town” and start campaigning for re-election, the Illinois House was unable to pass even an interim budget. This may have something to do with the 300,000 emails and over 5,000 calls they received, urging them not to vote for an irresponsible budget. In any case, we now have two more weeks on the legislative calendar. Laura Dean Friedrich and Courtney Eccles of the PCG staff have been in Springfield almost every week for the past five months. The Common Good Network (CGN) asked them to describe the crisis, and what we must do in these next two weeks.

CGN: We’re very near the end of the Spring Session of the Illinois General Assembly, with a huge budget crisis waiting to be addressed. Update us on what has transpired and where we stand.

First of all, it’s important to understand that we began this fiscal year with a budget of $26 billion – 10% less than last year’s. These cuts meant human services, education, health care, and public safety programs across the state started 2010 with much less money than 2009. In addition, the state fell farther and farther behind in paying its bills to these groups – leaving many of them struggling to continue services with lower resources.

Illinois’ unpaid bills currently total about $5 to $6 billion, and many experts estimate that the total budget deficit for this fiscal year stands at $13 billion. Going into next year with a $13 billion deficit in the $26 billion General Revenue Fund is definitely a crisis.

Some members of the legislature and the general public continue to say that the solution to this crisis is to make more cuts. They dismiss the cuts from the beginning of the year and describe them as inadequate, but they also have difficulty identifying the places where we should make further cuts. And, they rarely acknowledge the job losses associated with substantial budget cuts.

The Responsible Budget Coalition, comprised of over 300 human service, education, health care, public safety, civic, labor, and advocacy organizations, believes that we cannot cut our way to a balanced budget.

CGN: That sounds pretty serious; can you elaborate as to why not?

Every day we hear stories from across the state about the devastating impact of the budget and revenue crisis. At a recent PCG event, we heard Executive Director Lynn O’Shea say that her organization, the Association for Individual Development in Aurora, will have to cut all outpatient services for people with mental health challenges and developmental disabilities. The remaining services which serve about 1,100 people will also have to be reduced. Business Manager Jan Bush announced last week that the Murphysboro School District is now waiting on over $900,000 in state aid. The district also administrates the SIU Pre-K Program, and is waiting on $2.2 million in funds. Peoria area school officials indicate that state funding cuts are putting alternative high school programs that serve at-risk students in jeopardy. For students who have dropped out of high school or who have been suspended or expelled, it may mean nowhere to turn. These are just a few stories that illustrate the damage being done in every community in the state.

CGN: So is it all bad news? Is there any good news, or a silver lining to be found?

Actually, there is some good news. After a year of hard work in legislative districts throughout the state, we have begun to see a few glimmers that things are changing.

Last week was important for advocates and legislators alike. Conventional wisdom held that the General Assembly would never vote for a tax increase in an election year, regardless of how bad the fiscal situation became. But, the Responsible Budget Coalition (RBC) along with a group of stalwart legislators pressed for new revenues based on the tax increases and reforms outlined in HB 174. Passed by the Senate at the end of the 2009 session, HB174 has met sustained resistance from the House majority leadership. The House instead planned to approve an irresponsible budget with no new revenue, heavy borrowing, delayed payments to the pension fund, and further devastating cuts to essential services across the state. They expected to pass this plan to the Governor, who would determine how much to slash and from where.

But the plan unraveled. Over 5,000 constituent phone calls and 300,000 e-mails flooded the Capitol over the last two weeks — urging representatives to vote against an irresponsible budget. House leadership pushed ahead, calling for votes on a number of irresponsible funding measures, but none received a clear majority. As a result, the House adjourned abruptly on Friday evening, May 7th, thereby missing a self-imposed budget deadline.

So, as one of our leaders said, “We live to ‘fight’ another day.” The constitutional date for the adjournment of the General Assembly is May 31st. That gives us two weeks to push for a more responsible, realistic budget!

CGN: OK, specifically, what do I as a citizen do? Who do I call or write or visit? What’s the message?

Get involved now. Visit, call, or write to your Illinois House Representative. Deliver this message: “You have not done your job. Go back to Springfield and develop a responsible budget, one that generates new revenue and creates tax credits for property owners and low- and moderate-income wage earners.” Call your Illinois Senator and deliver the same message. Then, get five other people to make calls, send e-mails, or visit the offices of their legislators.

CGN: Where can I go or who do I contact if I need information?

Take action with people of faith across the state by responding to the Faith-in-Action Alerts distributed by PCG. Visit the RBC website for updates on actions and legislative developments. Attend RBC press events being held next week. Talk with Laura Dean Friedrich or Courtney Eccles to learn about other ways you can advocate for a better budget and a better future for the children, youth, and families of Illinois.

CGN: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I hope our readers will take this all to heart and act for the common good.

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