JOLIET – Legislators return to Springfield this week for a lame-duck session set for Monday and Tuesday, followed by the inauguration of the 100th Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday.
But sooner or later, that ever-growing elephant in the room will get addressed.
“Thursday is regular session,” said state Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet. “We’ll have to get rid of the flowers and send family home.”
Entering the new year – six months away from a third straight year without a full year’s operating budget – area legislators are not exactly sure they will be able to pass a budget in the coming months.
McGuire and state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, both put the odds at 50 percent.
State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, didn’t put a percentage on her level of confidence a budget would be reached, but said she remains cautiously optimistic.
McGuire said when legislators return to session this week they have three major tasks: to fund the final six months of the fiscal year, which ends June 30; to enact a full fiscal 2018 budget; and to release capital grants that have been suspended.
“I have hope that we can achieve those three tasks because of the bipartisan groups that met last year and agreed on two stopgap budgets,” McGuire said. “They had elements of what I call ‘the winning formula’: spending only the money we have, and keeping nonbudgetary items out of the budget.”
Seeking a balanced budget
Rumors were circulating Thursday and Friday that leaders from both sides of the aisle were nearing compromise on reforms that could lead to a budget agreement.
Walsh said he’s heard there’s talk of a sugary drink tax.
Talks about school funding reform continue, Rezin said, as do workers compensation talks, Walsh said.
Leadership from both the Republican and Democratic sides have gone back and forth about property tax freezes and income tax increases over the past two years.
But Walsh said it comes down to having an honest discussion. He said nobody seems to want to talk about revenue – just proposed cuts.
When Rauner was elected governor in 2014, the temporary 5 percent state income tax was still in place, Walsh noted.
In 2015, when the income tax dropped back down to 3.75 percent, it “blew a $4.5 billion hole in our budget,” Walsh said.
“Now we’re at $11 billion in [unpaid bills], and we still don’t have a budget in place,” Walsh said. “There’s no way we can just cut our way out of it. We have got to have new revenue.”
Walsh said legislators need to stop playing policy games about what the state is obligated to do, and focus on the actual math of the budget.
“Whether it’s an income tax vote, or a sugar tax vote, cuts to social service or administration – we need to have that discussion and put it up for a vote,” Walsh said. “Tying stuff into it that doesn’t take effect until 2022 or 2032 – it’s irrelevant to what we’re facing. We need stability in the state.”
Rezin said that the Republican view of the budget and how to set a path forward for the state is to provide predictability and stability for all parties that deal with state government. Republicans have been adamant that businesses are scared to invest in Illinois.“The private sector is an integral part of increasing revenue to the state through job creation,” Rezin said.
Rezin continues to work as a member of the education funding reform commission, which has been meeting since last summer.
The current public school funding formula, which studies show creates an underfunding of K-12 districts with poorer incomes, has been in place for 30 years.
There’s been significant progress made by the group, Rezin said, which is working in a bipartisan manner. Rauner gave a deadline of Feb. 1 for a new formula proposal.
“I’m excited about what I see on this commission,” Rezin said. “Both sides are sitting at the table having good policy discussions about education.”
A must-have in the state budget, McGuire said, is funding for low- to moderate-income college students through the Monetary Award Program grants. There is not funding currently in place for spring semester MAP grants.
“There are 100,000 students statewide who attended the fall semester who are now hoping and praying the state will pay for MAP grants,” McGuire said.
That includes students at Joliet Junior College, University of St. Francis and Lewis University.
Some schools are fronting the money to students so they don’t have to drop out, McGuire said. JJC advanced more than $1 million in MAP grants last school year, but was unable to do so this year.
Social service clients at risk
Trinity Services Chief Operating Officer Thane Dykstra said $2 million to $3 million in annual funding that the New Lenox-based organization receives goes toward mental health services, which is a small portion of its overall budget compared to other organizations.
Trinity’s funding for its intellectual disability work is guaranteed by consent decree. But mental health is different.
“And if you’re a mental health provider exclusively, it could be all of your budget,” Dykstra said, adding that small providers encounter significant cash flow problems.
There’s another state-related factor affecting Trinity and places like it, Dykstra said. The state’s average wage for direct support staff is $9.31. Organizations such as Trinity and Joliet-based Cornerstone Services have been pushing for a higher wage for direct service professionals.
“As other industries, like retail, have been able to increase wages, it makes it much more difficult to hire staff,” Dykstra said.
Trinity, which serves more than 3,500 children and adults who have intellectual or developmental disabilities or mental health needs, has a 24 percent vacancy of its direct support staff.
Dykstra said the staff depletions came in two waves.
The first came after the state and Services Employees International Union reached an agreement in December 2012 that boosted minimum wages incrementally to $13 over a two-year period for home health care workers. This caused many to leave Trinity for home health care.
The second wave of staffing losses occurred when Amazon opened a network of distribution facilities in Will County with entry level jobs that pay $13 to $15.
The staffing deficiency has affected Trinity on different levels, Dykstra said. Remaining staff work overtime and front line supervisors pick up more shifts.
He admitted he can’t blame someone whose passion is social services, but decides to leave for a better paying job in another field.
“I can’t fault a person if they leave a social services agency and go to Amazon to make $4 more an hour,” Dykstra said.
The work Trinity employees do is complex, he said, and the wage increase is deserved and needed for social services to be competitive with other fields.
“If this budget did include the increase in wages it would be a huge relief on the social services system,” he said. “There would be incredible rejoicing from everybody.”
Politics seems to be getting in the way, though.
“It seems like both sides blame each other,” Dykstra said. “Dems say they can’t do anything because of the governor and Republicans say the Dems aren’t being flexible with business reforms.”
Rauner has vetoed minimum wage increases for home health care workers and those who work with intellectual disabilities, citing a lack of revenue to pay for the wages.