State agencies grapple with budgets as more cuts loom

Monday, August 16, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. --- State agencies are struggling to decide how to reduce their budgets after Gov. Pat Quinn announced more state spending cuts but didn't say exactly where they'd be made -- creating confusion and uncertainty for people who depend on state services.

Quinn said last week he would make another $900 million in cuts, on top of the $500 million he previously announced, to reduce Illinois' record-high budget deficit. But those cuts are simply lumped under broad categories.

The real decisions about which programs will get less money -- and therefore which Illinois residents will get less from their government -- still lie ahead.

At the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, for instance, $208 million in cuts are described simply as "various quality and efficiency initiatives." The Department of Human Services faces $576 million in cuts that it says will affect young mothers, disabled children, deaf people and more, but officials still have to decide on specifics.

Such uncertainty means people and groups that actually deliver services on the state's behalf -- pharmacies providing medicine for the poor, workers who cook and clean for the elderly, job programs that train the developmentally disabled -- don't know if they'll continue being paid or how much they might get.

"They can't plan. How do you make a budget?" said John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. "It's not fair."

The agencies that must make the cuts are in a difficult position, too.

Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos says she has ideas on how to cut her agency's budget but can't discuss them publicly yet. She also acknowledges the agency, which provides Medicaid health coverage for the poor, is figuring out some cuts as it goes along.

"There's some of that," Hamos said, adding that a $200 million reduction in federal funds is "presenting another challenge to us that we haven't even begun to think about."

Human Services spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said that agency still hasn't decided "the exact programs that face elimination."

Judith Gethner, manager of the coalition Partners for Human Services, said her group has been trying to find out from state officials when more details will be available.

"The answer we received is that it's going to be fluid," Gethner said. "This is an ongoing target that is going to keep moving."

Advocates say Quinn bears only part of the responsibility for the uncertainty.

Much of the blame, they say, lies with state legislators who refused to approve new money to pay for state services but also refused to make the tough decisions on where to cut spending. Lawmakers dumped both chores in Quinn's lap.

"The legislators' job is to construct a budget. They chose to throw it over the fence to the governor," Gethner said.

Between old bills waiting to be paid and shortfalls in the coming year, Illinois faces a deficit of roughly $13 billion. Officials would have to slash state spending in half to close that gap in a single year.

Quinn proposed reducing the deficit with a combination of tax increases, spending cuts and loans, but legislators would not approve any specific plan.

Instead, they gave Quinn broad authority to make cuts wherever he sees fit. So organizations that depend on state money now have to wait for the Quinn administration to figure out what it will do.

The governor's budget office wouldn't discuss how those decisions are being made, beyond saying that officials are looking for places where reductions can be made and deciding which services get top priority.

While Bouman, from the Sargent Shriver Center, isn't happy about the uncertainty, he does see some benefit to Quinn delaying final decisions. It's possible the federal government will provide more money to the state or that legislators will take action, such as raising taxes, in November, he said.

"Playing for time if you think there's some chance of a better outcome is not an irresponsible strategy," he said.

But Bouman also argued it's one thing to wait until there's a decision at the federal level, and it's another for Illinois officials to delay action for purely political reasons.

"Let's face it," he said. "Everybody's waiting until the election to see exactly what will be done."