Five DeKalb-area panelists took part in an Illinois Issues discussion earlier this week about the effects of the two-year Illinois budget impasse and the state’s financial future. That’s the subject of this week's WNIJ Friday Forum.
Illinois was without a state budget for two years. That ended in early July when lawmakers overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto. It was a huge relief to schools, social service agencies, and programs that rely on state funding. But celebrations were tempered by the reality of the state’s fiscal situation.
Matt Streb is Chief of Staff for Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman
“When we had the budget passed this past year," he told the audience, "I walked into Freeman’s office, I gave her a high five, then I walked back across the hall to my office, sat at my desk, and got heartburn. Because I started thinking about fiscal '19.”
Deanna Cada, director of the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board, says the local mental health providers her board assists are still hurting, nearly four months after the state budget passed.
"Agencies that were getting paid during the budget impasse, because they were under mandate to do so, are not getting their checks because they’re at the end of the line," she said. "I met with agencies (Tuesday) morning, and a lot are suffering from cash flow, because checks that were counted on were not coming in. The story is not over. There are still impacts we will feel in this community for a while."
Kristina Garcia has a similar story as the volunteer executive director of Conexion Comunidad. The DeKalb organization is a not-for-profit cultural center that helps support other groups in the community. Garcia said the center isn't directly affected by the state budget crisis, but "the biggest issue is the loss of partners that have lost funding from the state. We went from one to three fundraisers a year to make up for the loss of funding for our partners."
Safe Passage is one of the organizations that survived the impasse. Director Mary Ellen Schaid says the domestic-violence shelter fared better than many similar programs across the state. They didn’t have to lay off any employees, but many employees left – and some weren’t replaced. Schaid says that damage continues to cascade. It’s harder to find people who want to work for agencies that count on state funding.
"People are more reluctant to come work for us," she said. "Because they don’t feel secure it will be safe because we don’t know what’s gonna happen. The state budget has been a mess for many years, but these last two years were pretty shocking to people in my world. The trust! It's hard to trust it will be there again."
Trust. Priorities. Uncertainty. Those are words you’re almost guaranteed to hear from people who are most directly affected by the budget impasse.
Matt Streb says universities like NIU just want to be able to plan, and they need a stable budget to do that – even if it means cuts. And it meant $10 million in cuts to the NIU budget, Streb says, at a time when the school was tens of millions of dollars behind in building maintenance, needed technology updates, and went years without pay raises for faculty and staff. Most importantly, Streb says it is difficult to get students to stay in Illinois.
"The week after the budget passed, we saw an enormous spike of new and transfer students who committed to NIU," he said. "I think a lot had to do with the fact there was a lot of uncertainty about the budget and MAP grants. Enrollment has had an effect because of what has happened in the state."
NIU Economics Prof. Jeremy Groves would like to see the state change its vocabulary when it comes to budget talks. He says lawmakers need to view critical services as investments, not just spending.
“Because if you are not investing in crisis, if you're not investing in English as a second language, if you're not investing in higher education, if you're not investing in health care, nothing else is going to happen!” he said. “These people are just going to be continually servicing the same people over and over again. It’s not spending. It’s very easy to say I’m going to cut spending. It’s less easy to say I’m going to cut investment.”
So what do organizations dependent on state money want?
Community Mental Health Board Director Cada says all she asks is that the state honor the contracts it has with its social-service providers.
"So, what I’d like the state to do is to say, ‘You do this work and I will pay you for it.' Seems like a simple concept."
~Deanna Cada, director of the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board
“What I’d like the state to do is to say, ‘You do this work and I will pay you for it,’” she said. “Seems like a simple concept. That is what the problem has been for the last couple years and continues to be right now, because these agencies aren’t getting the payments. It’s a very simple answer, because I wish those payments covered all the needs that exist.”
Mary Ellen Schaid of Safe Passage takes it a little further. She says not-for-profit agencies were still expected to carry on as usual -- delivering services and writing grant proposals -- while the state skipped promised payments.
“I was calling legislators, I was writing letters, I was going to Springfield on top of everything else I had to do,” she said, “so I would like that to stop. And I would like to provide a high quality of service to people and help them get on their feet and be contributing members of our community.
Cada says the state’s budget process reminds her of something Vice President Joe Biden said:
“Don’t tell me what you value,” she said. “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
Groves says now is the time for Illinoisans to take an active role in their government.
“It would be nice if the structure of the system was such that we could go through the budget and say, ‘This is good idea; this is a good idea, yeah; this is not so much a good idea.’ I would say, in short, that that’s where citizen participation comes in,” he said, “and pay attention to what your school board is spending money on, pay attention to what your local community is spending money on. If you don’t like it, say something.”
Groves says that’s the kind of pressure that can keep Illinois from falling back into a fiscal meltdown next year.
- The state budget forum in DeKalb was one in a series this year hosted by NPR Illinois, in conjunction with public radio stations and AARP. You can watch the entire forum at nprillinois.org