Peoria Journal Star

Our View: Unfunded mandates do social services no favors

Monday, September 20, 2010

Say you're in the Illinois Legislature. The state can't pay any of its bills. It's months behind on payments to contractors, local governments, and, most painfully, to not-for-profit social service providers. Would you support any measure that could make life even harder for agencies that fall in that latter category?

Sadly, if unsurprisingly, that's exactly what lawmakers did with a bill they passed last year governing passenger vans, which went into effect over the summer. There have long been concerns over the safety of larger passenger vans, those holding 11-15 passengers. Among other worries, they have a rollover rate three times higher than their smaller counterparts and are not always driven by someone used to handling the larger vehicle. It's a legitimate concern.

Thus, the Legislature decreed they could no longer be used to transport students to school functions, and buses or smaller vans would have to be substituted instead. Bizarrely, the law still permits the use of the bigger vans for non-school activities; we assume the safety concerns aren't dependent on there being a school bell involved.

For most school districts the law's no biggie; they have fleets of buses, including smaller ones, that can schlep kids on field trips or to athletic or academic competitions. But they're not the only ones affected. Locally, Children's Home used the larger vans to transport kids under the agency's care between their homes at Youth Farm and either Limestone High School or the agency's own Kiefer School. Other social service groups, whether involved in after-school programs or other partnerships with the schools, are potentally affected as well.

Of course, as has become its custom, the state offered no money to buy new vans to comply with the act. For Children's Home alone, that's close to a $250,000 unfunded mandate right up front. Because the new law also limits who can transport the students, Children's Home must hire two part-time bus drivers - though the kids will be transported in vans, not buses - to meet the current regulations.

Bear in mind that the added cost is piled on top of what Deadbeat Illinois already owes Children's Home for services previously delivered - somewhere between $3 million and $3.5 million at this writing. (Because some state money is still coming in while Illinois Inc. is falling behind on payments for other programs, any estimate will be a bit of a moving target.) It takes some gall for a state in arrears to its vendors to sock them with even more liability, forcing many to borrow money in the interim, lay off staff or cut programs. Does the left hand not know how much the right hand has already slapped these guys around?

Children's Home, which is running a much leaner operation now, was able to buy smaller vans right away. Still, it was an unexpected cost, one that "will eventually catch up with us," says CEO Clete Winkelmann.

Because there wasn't much done to get the word out - Children's Home got but one notice from the state, two months before the law went into effect - many other operations that could be in the same boat remain confused as to whether they are affected and might have another budget hit coming their way. Winkelmann says it's an ongoing point of discussion for the statewide coalition of organizations like his.

Either way, the law of unintended consequences is rearing its head here. Winkelmann is not opposed to improving safety for kids - nor are we; Children's Home has never suffered a serious accident with the vehicles, by the way - but he'd have preferred the Legislature impose a sunset date for the bigger vans and allow word of it to fan out to the agencies rather than dropping the matter in their laps with so little time to prepare. Alas, those concerns apparently weren't enough to keep legislators from overwhelmingly passing the measure. A handful of central Illinois lawmakers, all Republicans - Reps. Keith Sommer of Morton, Dan Brady of Bloomington, Bill Mitchell of Forsyth, Jil Tracy of Mount Sterling - opposed it.

Unfortunately, repealing or amending the measure now won't help anybody here; the money has already been spent and isn't coming back. It's just one more reminder that legislators need to think through the potential consequences of their actions before moving forward on a bill. And it's one more example of a state government that seems clueless in so many ways, and that continues to make life difficult, wittingly or not, for those who deal with the most vulnerable among us.