More Illinois residents feel pain as budget impasse drags on

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Posted: Jul 27, 2015 2:30 PM
More Illinois residents feel pain as budget impasse drags on

CHICAGO (AP) — As she drops off her 4-year-old son at a Chicago daycare to head for a job she loves, Stacy Rutledge wonders how she'll keep doing it once she loses her state-subsidized child care.

A few miles away, 80-year-old Helen King worries what she'll do if another heat wave hits and her electricity has been shut off because she no longer gets help paying the bill.

And just outside St. Louis, Tara Miller watches her daughter — cut off from a state-supported program that helps kids with autism learn new ways to communicate — "disappear back into herself."

Almost a month after Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who run the Legislature entered a new fiscal year without agreeing on a state budget, Illinois in many ways is still chugging along. State parks and driver's license offices remain open, state workers and lawmakers are getting paychecks and Illinois is still making payments on its debt, thanks to mix of court orders and state law.

But the budget impasse is hitting a growing number of people, as social service agencies don't get promised payments, programs are reduced or eliminated and some agencies close their doors. The agencies estimate tens of thousands — most of them low-income working parents, seniors, people with disabilities and immigrants — have become the collateral damage in an ideological battle between the newly elected governor and Democrats that could go on for months.

"You're pretty much taking the rug out from under someone," said Rutledge, who is a health adviser at an insurance company. "It's inhumane."

Illinois' roughly $6 billion deficit — caused in part by the rollback of a temporary tax increase — is the largest of any state. But the disagreement between Rauner and majority Democrats has focused less on how to close the gap than on other changes the businessman-turned-governor wants.

Rauner is the latest GOP governor to win office and tangle with entrenched Democrats over economic policies and the influence of labor. A similar clash, but with the political affiliations reversed, is also going on in Pennsylvania, where first-term Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature are in the fourth week of a budget stalemate that has left the state without some spending authority. For now, however, state employees, schools and social service providers are getting their checks.

In Illinois, Rauner's policy priorities include term limits for lawmakers or reducing the amount businesses pay for workers' compensation insurance. He also wants to end collective bargaining by public-employee unions and eliminate labor-backed requirements that workers on public construction projects earn a certain wage.

The multimillionaire former private equity investor says the changes are needed to make Illinois more appealing to businesses and end decades of insider political deals.

But Democratic leaders have argued that Rauner's agenda will hurt the middle class and the state's most vulnerable and shouldn't be part of budget talks. They've proposed closing the deficit through a mix of spending cuts and new taxes.

The governor vetoed most of a budget Democrats sent him that was $4 billion short of revenue. But Rauner did sign legislation to fund schools, meaning classrooms will be open and teachers paid come August, which eased political pressure to reach a deal by then.

Meanwhile negotiations seem to have stalled, with Senate President John Cullerton saying the two sides haven't met in weeks and when they do, "nothing happens."

Outside the Capitol walls, the fallout grows. And while social service agency closings aren't yet widespread, many leaders say they can only survive for weeks or a few months more without their state funding.

Nam Kyu Kim, who runs a Korean community center in the Chicago suburbs, said without state funds, Hanul Community Center had to lay off six staff members and no longer offers free citizenship classes.

Rutledge, a college-educated mother of two, says she's seen parents crying in the hallway after learning their child care assistance won't come through. Many will be forced to quit their jobs or might leave young kids home alone, she said.

King lives on a fixed income and pays her heat and electricity bills with help of a state energy assistance program that's no longer funded. If lawmakers don't restore the energy assistance program, she says she'll have to cut back on groceries and medication to keep her electricity on.

"I thought the purpose was to sit down and work things out," she said, frustrated by the officials' lack of progress. "They're too busy fighting."

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Associated Press reporter Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this story.