Rauner’s proposed cuts show difficulty in reducing spending

While the cuts are enough to shut down a single program or service, though, their overall effect on state spending would be minimal.

By John O’Connor 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — In a two-year stalemate over how to drag Illinois out of a $5 billion deficit and get on top of $13 billion in past-due bills, Gov. Bruce Rauner has been under pressure to show where he would cut the spending he says is necessary.

But lost in the political cat-and-mouse between the Republican governor and the Democrats who control the Legislature are real spending reductions that Rauner proposed in his annual budget plan two months ago. According to an analysis by The Associated Press, there at least 40 areas the first-term executive proposes eliminating or significantly reducing.

“We need to look to programs that serve the most vulnerable and to programs that serve the entire state instead of a specific geographic region, a specific population or a specific vendor,” Scott Harry, Rauner’s budget director, said in explaining the approach to reductions. “They’re important programs. But tough choices have to be made.”

While the cuts are enough to shut down a single program or service, though, their overall effect on state spending would be minimal. All told, they would save $242 million, or one-half of 1 percent of what the state spends in a year. More than half of that — $125 million — would be reductions to already-battered university budgets.

Here are a few examples:

MASS TRANSIT SUBSIDIES, $17.5 million

Federal and state laws require free or reduced rides for seniors and the disabled on commuter trains and buses in the metro Chicago area, at a cost to the Regional Transportation Authority of about $100 million. The state had previously provided a $34 million annual subsidy before it was halved when Rauner took office. The required discounts don’t go away even if the subsidy does, RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden said.

“These cuts to state funding would merely shift these costs to local taxpayers and fare-paying transit riders,” Redden said.

FUNERAL AND BURIAL EXPENSES, $8.8 million

The state pays for funerals and burials of those who die alone or with no money. Symonds Funeral Homes, with four Chicago-area locations, has received $43,000 this year for this service. Partner Irving Symonds says he and other funeral directors also do other burial for free, but many become the county coroner’s responsibility.

“The taxpayers of that county have to pay the bill,” Symonds said. “What do we do with these poor souls?”

Cook County-financed cremations of unclaimed remains have more than tripled since 2014, from 166 to 541 in calendar 2016.

The service is offered statewide. Records show that funeral homes in Pekin, Springfield and Mount Vernon are among the top participants.

TEEN REACH, $13.1 million

The afterschool program has survived other attempts at cuts. In Springfield, Tiffany Mathis, who coordinates Teen REACH for the Boys & Girls Clubs, said funding allows the club to stay open into night hours.

That’s when Lonnie Bland and Darian Bills, both high school seniors, use it. They learned lessons at the club, such as how to settle an argument on the basketball court with free-throws. The club’s supportive atmosphere has helped when Bland encounters illicit drugs on the street. “I walk the other way,” he said.

“We leave all the violence on the outside,” Bills said.

SIUE FIRE SERVICES, $156,000

The Edwardsville Fire Department has protected the Southern Illinois University campus since it opened in the 1960s. Other university towns get a fire-protection subsidy, according to Fire Chief Rick Welle. Edwardsville-area legislators finally secured $311,000 in 2015 — about half the operating cost of the department’s new on-campus station. That was cut in half last year.

“If we have to fund that ourselves, it’s got to give somewhere else, whether it’s in parks and recreation, or public works, or police,” Welle said.

SUPPORTIVE HOUSING SERVICES, down $9.4 million to $4 million

MERCY Communities in Springfield puts homeless women with children — many of them domestic-violence survivors — into housing with follow-up support. With Illinois budget uncertainty the past two years, staff members bring their own office supplies to work, Executive Director Joan Queen said.

“I do realize that we have to have a balanced budget,” Queen said. “But in the long run, we’ll always have homeless people.”

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