By CARL GREEN
Swansea, IL – Illinois Democrats remain united against Gov. Bruce Rauner’s union-busting demands, leaving the state’s budget in limbo.
Rauner would agree to a budget – if Democrats would give up prevailing wage on public construction projects and agree to roll back workers’ compensation for injuries on the job. Democrats have no intention of agreeing to those measures.
Caught in the crossfire are some of the state’s neediest residents.
Some pieces of the Illinois budget have come together, with one major exception – funding for social services that help the state’s elderly, disabled and needy young people.
Court decisions forced some parts of the government to be funded, schools funding was approved, and the Legislature has now approved using funds provided by the federal government. Public safety spending for police and emergency officials won’t interrupted, either.
In all, only about 10 percent of the budget remains unfunded. But, as a meeting in Swansea last week showed, that 10 percent is vital to the lives of many of the state’s least fortunate.
NOT JUST NUMBERS
State Rep. Jay Hoffman of Belleville opened the meeting with this description. “The struggle we’re facing is really the struggle over how we are going to balance the budget – and not do it on the backs of the people who need it the most, individuals with disabilities, the elderly, people who need heating assistance,” he said. “That’s what this fight is all about – it’s about people, not just numbers on a page.”
The meeting at LINC Inc. in Swansea, a center that helps people with disabilities remain independent, brought together workers and clients from service agencies with three state representatives, all Democrats – Hoffman, Rep. Jerry Costello II of Sparta and Rep. Dan Beiser of Alton. Television news crews also turned up to record the stories of the people who stand to lose the most from the standoff.
• LINDA CONLEY, of Belleville, is visually impaired, has no sense of smell and has balance issues. Still, she is able to live on her own with the help of a guide dog and personal assistance at a cost far below that of institutionalization. She has even found an important community role to play, as chairman of the LINC Inc. board.
But a state plan to raise the “determination of need” would exclude her from the services she relies on, including meals, laundry, cleaning and medications.
“It is a very threatening thought to think you would have all of that completely taken away from you,” she told the group.
• JOHN DOUGLAS, who uses a wheelchair, said he was just laid off from the LINC staff due to a lack of state funding. To him, it’s a matter of being able to support himself.
“I’ve always considered myself lucky because I didn’t have to use different services,” he said. “I’ve always been able to find a job or a ride, so I don’t need transportation or meals on wheels, but I do need a job so I can pay my rent.”
• AMBER KUENZ, a Missouri native who now lives in Granite City, faced a bleak future at the age of 18 with her mother in jail and no information about her father. She stayed with a family but was kicked out and landed at the Children’s Home and Aid program. Her caseworker, Jarrett West, helped Kuenz find her own apartment, earn a high school diploma and land a full-time job to support herself and her newborn.
“She has been the most consistent person in my life,” Kuenz said. “She’s been there to assist me and help me and actually understands where I was coming from. It’s sad to think that she might lose her job and her career… because we don’t have the money.”
• MAX BRYANT, an Air Force veteran, and his wife Lindsey, a daycare teacher, never expected to need help, but their third child, daughter Bailey, now 22 months old, arrived with Down Syndrome and it was clear she was going to need extra help.
The Early Intervention Training Program has provided it, helping her learn to walk, and working with her on speech, occupational and developmental therapy.
“Without early intervention, I don’t know where we’d be today,” Bryant said.
• DARLENE JONES, representing the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois, said the budget is literally a matter of life and death to abused women.
“A lot of the shelters are having to close down,” she said.
“The point of coming to our shelter is to give them an opportunity to get away from the abuser. With the shelters closing, they have less and less opportunity to leave.”
Hoffman laid the blame for the impasse squarely on Rauner, saying the governor proposed an unacceptable, out-of-balance budget in February and since then has refused to discuss it aside from non-budgetary issues such as his anti-labor proposals.
“Everyone in this room is being used as a pawn to get his billionaire agenda passed,” Hoffman said.
One meeting participant, Sheila Miller, urged those present to express themselves at the ballot box.
“Everyone in the room sees who is standing for us and with us, so please vote,” she said. “You know, sometimes people don’t think it’s important. It was important last time and it’s important now.”
Costello said one sure way to decide how to vote is to check candidates’ voting records.
“Look at what we voted on and the services we voted to provide,” he said. “These are basic services that government is meant to provide. It’s a basic function of government to take care of the most vulnerable people in the state.”