September 10, 2017; State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL) and Chicago Tribune

The feud between the governor of Illinois and the state legislature over a state budget has ended after two years with a legislative override of Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto. The impact of this two-year standoff on Illinois nonprofits has been widely covered by NPQ, tracking the devastation the lack of state funding has brought to social service organizations, colleges and universities, and low-income families in Illinois. Now that a budget is in place, the process of implementation falls to the governor’s office—and that seems to mean more bickering and holdups between the governor and the legislature. Those who have been and remain caught in the middle of this are the Illinois nonprofits who provide vital services for people with disabilities and the state’s low-income communities.

NPQ, as readers know, has for the last few years covered the related story that low wages for direct service workers have made this growing field into a “job ghetto” set right in the middle of a competitive jobs environment. A combination of unions and nonprofits are taking this problem on in pockets across the country.

The newly approved budget calls for a 75-cent-per-hour raise for workers under state contracts for the care of those with developmental disabilities in group homes. The governor’s office has indicated he will begin the process to grant this raise within 60 days, retroactive to August 1st. This will be the first pay increase granted through state funding in nine years and will benefit approximately 34,000 direct-service workers.

Another pay raise, however, that was also included in the budget has now become a subject of dispute and a lawsuit. This one, a 48-cent-per-hour raise for around 28,000 “personal assistants” and “individual maintenance home health workers” who care for physically disabled people in clients’ homes, is caught in limbo. The difference between these workers and those who care for the disabled in group homes is that these workers are unionized. Governor Rauner has suggested that this increase should be included as a part of the union negotiations. The SEIU representing these workers disagrees and has filed a lawsuit. There is no love lost on either side in this dispute, as the governor and state employee unions have locked horns since his election.

The 48-cent wage increase “wasn’t a suggestion,” said state Rep. Gregory Harris, D-Chicago, a key budget negotiator for his political party in the Illinois House who wants to see the increase carried out immediately by the executive branch Rauner controls.

“This is serious stuff,” Harris said.

Jason Schaumburg, a spokesman for the Governor, said state labor law requires that the state and labor unions “abide by the status quo while they are bargaining over a new collective bargaining agreement.”

Schaumburg added: “The state remains willing to discuss issues with SEIU that are properly subject to collective bargaining, including wages, and calls on SEIU to use the statutorily required bargaining process rather than seek to make an end run around that process through litigation.”

In the reportage on this in the Chicago Tribune, it was noted that the governor has expressed concern about borrowing to refinance the state debt and suggested that this could result in more cuts. Rauner has railed against the permanent tax increase in this budget and considers the budget to be imbalanced. Further cuts, as well as dealing with the backlog of previously contracted monies owed to many nonprofits, could become part of the governor’s way of achieving the balance he seeks.

“In the abstract, governors have broad authority in terms of carrying out programs, and their fiscal powers are pretty strong,” said Charles N. Wheeler III, a state government and journalism expert at the University of Illinois Springfield. “They have a lot of leeway.”

Concern abounds among Illinois nonprofits, now wondering if Rauner will fund the $71 million in grants from the Illinois Department of Human Services. This is funding for services such as autism therapy and research, afterschool programs, integration assistance for immigrants, and burial for the poor. NPQ has reported on Illinois nonprofits that have closed programs, cut staff, and even shut their doors during the budget standoff. Even now that a budget is in place, they may face more of the same.

There are ways to save funds that put money back into the contracted services that Illinois nonprofits provide. Borrowing is one component, but one the governor is loath to embrace. Those who are bearing the brunt of this continue to wait. As Comptroller Susana Mendoza said, “It’s almost like the little kid in the school yard that doesn’t like the fact that he lost the game, so he picks up his toys and runs away. He could have taken the good parts of the budget and implemented them on day one. Instead, it’s all of this pressure that has to mount before the governor will take action.”

In the meantime, Illinois nonprofits and their workers await state contracts, anticipate cuts, and continue to try to stay afloat.—Carole Levine