February 19, 2016; Chicago Tribune and WBEZ-FM

Imagine if someone arbitrarily decided to take a line of credit from you, and that they then withdrew 70 percent of your overall household income each month. So it goes for Illinois social service agencies, which are now owed many millions.

Last week, the continuing Illinois budget impasse, which NPQ has been following, became painful enough to move Catholic Charities of Chicago, another of the state’s largest social service agencies, to take unprecedented action in urging its parishioners to take direct action. According to the Chicago Tribune’s Manya Brachear Pashman, “A letter going out to parish priests Friday…is urging parishioners to remind their legislators that lives are at stake if the financial crisis isn’t resolved.”

The social and human costs of the eight months of political battle are well illustrated by Catholic Charities’ experience. Over $25 million in state funding is now owed to the agency; in addition, the state has been late in passing through as much as $10 million in federal funds.

As Monsignor Michael Boland, president and CEO of Chicago’s Catholic Charities said in an interview, “The safety net is fragile to begin with in social service.  Our elected officials have to realize these are human beings we’re talking about—human lives. Once these things start to unravel, it creates less options for people. […] For us, some of these situations can be life or death.”

While leaders of the state’s social service agencies continue to struggle to stay afloat, there is little if any movement toward agreement on a state funding plan.  Last week, Governor Bruce Rauner used the occasion of his annual budget address to the legislature to redraw the battle lines. According to WBEZ, the governor emphasized that “the key to the budget crisis includes reducing worker compensation costs, passing tort reform legislation and lowering property taxes.”

Rauner’s second budget address, delivered eight months after the current fiscal year’s budget should have taken effect, reinforces what he’s said in the past about his openness to raising taxes—but only if lawmakers are willing to give him some of the reforms he wants. “You choose,” he told lawmakers. “But please, choose now.” Without some reforms, he added, “We cannot in good conscience raise taxes on the hard-working families of Illinois.”

And his opponents gave little ground:

Democrats who control the legislature already have balked at the idea of giving Rauner unilateral power to make cuts, repeatedly dismissed his suggested reforms, such as curbing the power of unions, and say the solution is a combination of spending cuts and raising taxes on the wealthy. […] “We’re all better served…if we follow the traditional approach, people become reasonable with each other, move away from extreme agendas, recognize that the No. 1 problem facing the state of Illinois is the budget deficit,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan.

With many state legislators on the ballot this November, it seems less and less likely that a resolution will be reached until well into the next fiscal year. Monsignor Michael Boland does not want the clients of Catholic Charities to feel abandoned. “I don’t want our clients to think that we’re not going to be there… What we want to have [legislators] realize is [that] the impact can be very grave if agencies continually have to spiral down and close down.” Alas, his desire that “they should not be pawns in this game…and their services should not be denied” seems too easily ignored by the politicians battling for their higher principles.—Martin Levine