April 22, 2015 / 11:12 AM / 5 years ago

In Illinois, the pain of budget cuts stings daily life

CHICAGO (Reuters) - No one answers the Illinois Tobacco Quitline’s telephone anymore.

Spencer Leak, Jr., Vice President and licensed Funeral Director at Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, poses for a photograph in the chapel in Country Club Hills, Illinois, April 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

Its 27 staff members were laid off suddenly last week when the stop-smoking program’s $3 million grant was suspended as part of $26 million in immediate spending cuts by the state.

For a state grappling with a $1.6 billion budget deficit, which has made Illinois a poster child for fiscal woes, the amount is a small drop in the big bucket of cuts needed to close the gap. But for some average citizens, the cuts threaten their daily well-being.

So poor you can’t bury your loved ones? Look elsewhere. Need specialized help for an autistic child? Look elsewhere.

New Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who campaigned on promises to get the state’s finances under control, implemented the cuts.

They came on top of the suspension of $180 million in grants for park improvements that Rauner put in place three months after taking office. In April he announced the $26 million in cuts to health and other services. He had already agreed with lawmakers to a 2.25 percent across-the-board spending cut as he tries to plug the hole in the state budget.

Those cuts pale compared with the $6 billion in spending cuts and savings that Rauner wants for the fiscal year that starts in July. A full one-third of that amount is designed to come from a controversial proposed change to the pension plan for public employees.

“You are taking from people who are in dire need,” said Stefan Dawson, whose 6-year-old son gets help for autism spectrum disorder through The Autism Program, a statewide network that serves about 15,000 families. It immediately lost $1 million in funding for April-June and could lose $4 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

“The governor has a lot of responsibilities, but you have to sit down and see what is important and what is working before you make irrational decisions to cut dollars on the backs of families who don’t have the resources to go somewhere else,” Dawson said.

Two lawmakers this week introduced proposals to restore the $26 million in cuts, but it was not clear if their initiatives would pass.

Rauner’s office said the governor has limited options because he inherited a budget put in place by the Democrat-controlled legislature and reluctantly signed into law by former Governor Pat Quinn.

The pain felt by families like Dawson’s could be just the beginning: Illinois has the most troubled finances of any U.S. state. Its low credit ratings - which play a big role in determining the state’s cost of borrowing money - could tip closer to the junk-bond status assigned to the riskiest debt if the state does not address a $105 billion unfunded pension liability and chronic unbalanced budget.

In addition to public pension contributions, Rauner’s proposed cuts for the fiscal year starting July 1 target public transportation, grants for job programs and preservation of historic sites.

Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget officers, said that while most states are adjusting to the “new normal” of slower growth, in general they are operating with more stable budgets than Illinois.

QUITLINE QUITS

Callers to the smoking quitline now hear a recorded message: “We will be closed until further notice.” Illinois is now the only state without a tobacco quitline, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said.

Last year the line took 96,000 calls and claims a 43 percent success rate in getting smokers to quit through a combination of over-the-phone counseling and mailed nicotine patches and gum.

“So many lives will be affected, I feel. Just to have those people out there it means so much, you could call them any time,” said Leslie Seei, 54, who credits the quitline’s counselors with getting her off cigarettes after 40 years.

“It made all the difference in the world,” said Seei, who runs a promotions company out of her home.

Spencer Leak, Jr., Vice President and licensed Funeral Director at Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, poses for a photograph in the display room in Country Club Hills, Illinois, April 20, 2015. Funeral directors are lobbying lawmakers to reverse $7 million in cuts for burial services for the poor, which they say could result in unclaimed bodies at morgues, hospitals and nursing homes. REUTERS/Jim Young

Funeral directors are lobbying lawmakers to reverse $7 million in cuts for burial services for the poor, which they say could result in unclaimed bodies at morgues, hospitals and nursing homes.

Spencer Leak, Jr., who runs Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, with locations in Chicago and one of its suburbs, said that last year his company handled 300 public aid funerals, most of which cost more than the $1,103 the state grant allowed. Now that money is gone.

“They come in with literally no money, and when I say ‘no money’ sometimes they cannot even afford to buy a suit or a dress for their loved one,” Leak said of the typical client for a public aid funeral. “They don’t have transportation to even get to the funeral.”

Additional reporting by Karen Pierog; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Leslie Adler

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