Advocates for state-funded child care programs were among those who spoke out at an Illinois Senate hearing in Chicago Monday, joining nearly a dozen organizations that sharply criticized Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed bone-deep, $6 billion budget cuts for 2016.
The advocates from an array of social service groups joined Democratic senators to grill Greg Bassi, the governor’s newly-appointed director of the Department of Human Services, on the consequences of the $248 million in cuts he’s proposed. The cuts range from early child care to mental health to afterschool programs, and would drastically curtail the reach of some services while discontinuing or “zeroing out” others.
“We are under an obligation to our customers and the citizens of this state to operate a realistic, balanced budget,” Bassi said in his opening remarks. “This is a difficult time and a difficult budget. As a result, difficult decisions must be made.”
His defense of the cuts didn’t satisfy Sessy Nyman, vice president of policy for Illinois Action for Children. The governor’s proposed budget would cut more than 100,000 children the organization’s after-school and summer childcare programs.
“[The governor] is looking at it purely as a numbers game, but in my mind the role of government is to ensure safety and security for its citizens, and part of that is keeping your children safe,” Nyman said.
Cutting afterschool programs would potentially turn thousands of students into “latchkey kids” with increased access to drugs and crime, she said. “And it’s not just about children,” Nyman added. “Significant research is out there showing that when parents don’t have access to reliable afterschool programming for their kids, their work habits change. They’re much less productive.”
Adults weren’t the only stakeholders who testified at the hearing. Vanessa Melendez, 13 and a longtime participant in Metropolitan Family Services’ Teen Reach program, took a turn at the microphone to plead for lawmakers to keep the program, which would be eliminated under Rauner’s budget.
“Teen Reach has actually helped me pull my grades up, and now they’ve encouraged me to apply to selective enrollment schools,” said Melendez, who called the program’s center her “second home.” “Losing the whole program would be like a bad nightmare. This is a bad idea, and I hope you consider what it means for thousands of kids and their families.”
Although Rauner has proposed additional spending on K-12 education via an increase in general state aid, his budget would also cut spending on 10 categorical education programs, including Advanced Placement classes—an area where Chicago has made progress in enrolling more students of color—and arts and foreign languages. Higher education would also be cut.
Other child care programs facing potential cuts include Early Intervention, which funds support for young children with developmental disabilities; and Outreach Community Ministries, which provides services for homeless youth.
A long, hot summer ahead?
More hearings are expected in the next few months, each one likely include heavy backlash against the cuts, before lawmakers get to the gritty challenge of actually passing a budget that will pass muster with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and the new Republican governor.
The Assembly has until May 31 to pass a budget by simple majority. After that, a two-thirds super-majority is required, so any proposal will need bipartisan support to reach the governor’s desk. Given the heated political climate, some observers say, the battle is almost certain to continue well into the summer.
Once the state’s temporary income tax increase was rolled back from 5 percent to 3.75 percent on January 1, the showdown on spending became virtually inevitable. Corporate tax rates were also rolled back, from 7 percent to 5.25 percent.
Rauner’s proposed 2016 budget depends heavily on changes to the state’s pension system as well as cuts that would strike hardest at human services spending.
Despite its dire fiscal straits, Illinois is not a big-government, big-spending state. Compared to other states, Illinois has a relatively small government and is on the low end of the spending scale, according to information compiled by the Center on Tax and Budget Accountability. Illinois also has the lowest effective income tax rate (taxes paid as a percentage of income) in the Midwest, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
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