Senate votes to restore human service cuts; bill moves to House for consideration

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — By a vote of 57-1, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday authorized additional fund transfers to restore $26 million in cuts made to human service programs on Good Friday.

The beill now moves to the House, where it’s fate Wednesday appeared less certain.

Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, sponsored the measure, which he said would authorize transfers from funds that still have surpluses for fiscal year 2015, including a supplemental energy assistance fund that has an available balance of $75 million.

The proposal, Senate Bill 274, does not include transfers from road fund, the state construction fund or the motor fuel tax funds, the senator said.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Kotowski said the emergency funding measure was drafted with the cooperation of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Senate and with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office.

Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, thanked Kotowski for his tenacity in attacking the problem, but the deputy Republican leader added all legislators must be mindful of tough decisions ahead, as the 2016 budget remains to be negotiated.

While senators could take momentary satisfaction in being able to help, legislators must realize Illinois has been “been spending more than we can afford and difficult decisions are coming down the pike,” Murphy said. “We need to brace ourselves.”

Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, also thanked the negotiators and his colleagues.

“We do have to organize and come up with a better way to spend the limited dollars we have, but we should not lose focus,” Trotter said.

“Some of these program that we call social services are actually life-giving services to the people who receive them,” he said.  “This is not just math; this is about people.”

Sen. Mike Noland, D-Elgin, cast the lone dissenting vote. He said he opposes the practice of last-minute fund transfers.

The April 3 spending cuts by the Rauner administration caused some friction between the Republican governor’s office and leading Democrats.

The General Assembly in late March approved a bill authorizing $1.36 billion in fund transfers and imposing a nearly across-the-board 2.25 percent budget cut to get the state through fiscal year 2015, which ends June 30. The goal was to close a $1.6 billion gap.

For a short while after the votes, work on the bills was hailed as outstanding bipartisan governance.

But Democrats said they were stunned when the Rauner administration then cut $26 million to programs including help for the autistic, burials for the poor and addiction prevention and treatment programs, among others.

Those legislators said they thought the programs — especially those having to do with mental and developmental health —had been funded and were safe for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who sponsored the March compromise bills in the Senate, said, “I felt like I had a kick in the stomach on April 3rd, ” when phone calls about the cuts began coming in.

Late Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said Kotowski’s bill was under review.

But Steve Brown of the speaker’s staff added House Democratic leadership felt the March bills gave the Rauner administration adequate funding and authority to complete the fiscal year without the cuts, especially those to mental health programs.

The bills did not decrease funding for those programs while it cut other state programs, he noted.

The compromise package was sponsored in the House by Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and supported by Madigan, both of whom spoke on the floor and told members that services for the mentally ill, people with developmental disabilities and autistic children would be spared from further cuts.

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