State Rep. Ron Stephens Opposes Illinois Human Services Budget Cuts

(Springfield, IL) — April 29, 2011. The Illinois Department of Human Services says it will be forced to cut programs to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents unless it is spared from deep cuts in next year’s budget.

But lawmakers on Thursday questioned the agency’s commitment given the fact that DHS employees received pay raises.

“I don’t know who is more vulnerable in Illinois, tell me who they are,” said State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Highland, in a heated discussion during a committee meeting. “Bring in your AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) employees and have them stand before us, and tell us that they are more vulnerable than the people at these facilities.”

DHS Secretary Michelle Saddler said the workload for employees has doubled due to layoffs, and that DHS employees have received pay raises that total up to $47 million.

A panel of legislators in a House Appropriations-Human Services Committee grilled Saddler and other DHS directors as the agency presented its line-by-line budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, which starts July 1. The deadline for the budget is May 31. The DHS proposed 2012 budget is $388 million less than its current $3.7 billion budget.

“We are here today to make our final request — I dare say — our final plea for a budget that cares for our citizens, citizens who need services in order to live conscious, engaged and independent lifestyles, and lives in which we all — each of us — can make a contribution,” Saddler said.

The tone in the committee room changed once DHS said it would cut more in the community services it provides, and close down two state schools in Jacksonville — the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired.

State Rep. Jim Watson, a Republican whose district covers the two schools being threatened with closure, questioned how it was possible for DHS employees to receive pay raises.

“How did we make this commitment to certain public service sector unions (for) these raises when we knew we were in a financial burden?” he said.

The collective bargaining issues for public sector unions were negotiated during former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration.

Jim Nowlan, a research fellow from the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said the labor relations contracts are the state’s obligation.

“(It) cannot be revised unless the unions were willing to open up the contract for change,” said Nowlan, a former Illinois lawmaker from the 1960s. “I think the legislators find themselves behind the eight ball. They’re trying to reduce the pay of state employees in order to shift the money to more services.”

Illinois has the nation’s smallest state work force per capita, according to Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME.

“These same workers are struggling just to provide the essential services residents rely on,” Lindall said. “Irresponsible politicians caused the state’s budget problems, and working people shouldn’t be punished for them.”

Illinois’ current deficit is $9 billion, according to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. Gov. Pat Quinn is proposing to spend $12.9 billion on all human services — not just those provided by DHS — for the 2012 budget, while the House is proposing $12 billion.

“The problem here is 80 percent of the budget goes for Medicaid, human services, education and paying the (state’s) debt, so those are the only areas in which the budget can be cut,” Nowlan said. “I’m suggesting that it may require shifting some of the proposed cuts (to other state agencies).”

Quinn has said in the past that one of his top priorities is “protecting the most vulnerable.”

State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Westmont, said the committee was hopeful cuts would be made in DHS’ administration costs instead of the services it provides.

“So we were hopeful that cuts could be made in areas where you wouldn’t cut some of the direct services and people. But most of the letters that we received in return were cuts on programs and not on anything to do with management or administration, so those are areas (lawmakers are) looking at when we’re looking at the whole budget.”

Social service providers and Illinoisans who have benefited from DHS programs also made their pleas to the panel of representatives to spare DHS from the additional cuts.

Nineteen-year-old Ladale Williams and his classmates from the Illinois School for the Deaf traveled from their hometowns to Springfield.

“Please help keep the ISD open. I want future generations to have those same chances that I’ve had to be successful,” Williams said through an interpreter.

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