Illinois’ budget battle ramps up

Brian Feldt

Robert O'Brien's 16-year career as an instructor at the Capital Area Career Center has come down to just five words: He is "no longer an economic necessity."

O'Brien's services at the center, which offers high school students in the Springfield area professional training before entering the workforce, were no longer needed - at least not in the same capacity.

Thanks to the struggling economic climate of the state and its even bleaker future, O'Brien's hours were cut in half. Not only that, but the class he taught - electrical and heating and air conditioning, an industry he says will produce more than 30,000 jobs in less than five years - was also cut in half, leaving a handful of students seeking the experience with no options.

"There is barely anything we can do about it," O'Brien said. "But we don't make the decisions, we just teach."

O'Brien, 61, said he has tried to contact local lawmakers, but to no avail.

And he's one of thousands of hardship stories throughout the state, which many interest groups have said has reached its boiling point.

Now, they say, is the time to act.

Groups across the state, led by unions representing state workers and teachers, have begun deploying their arsenal of persuasion tools on lawmakers set to begin the final stretch of the legislative session this week.

The challenge

But even with many state agencies facing massive layoffs and cutbacks, the prospects of relief through a budget solution looks grim this spring.

"I'm not convinced substantial progress will be made," said state Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville.

Sullivan said lawmakers lack the appetite to pass any type of tax increase, which nearly all groups are touting, and the legislature will most likely revert to passing a budget that allocates the money available at the time - not a six-month budget as many have speculated.

"But obviously, that (type of budget) is going to run out before the end of the (fiscal) year," Sullivan said.

For most providers, though, just knowing what they will be dealing with would be a load off their shoulders.

Marcia Cox, executive director of the Educational Day Care Center in Jacksonville, said her main problem is two-fold.

Cox said she is fine with taking a cut but needs the state to pay its obligations just to keep the center running. Also, she is nearly operating the center blind because she has no idea as to what type of cuts will be enacted for next year.

"We are willing to take some cuts and tighten our belt - I think we have room to do that - but we need to have our money so we can run the program," she said.

Cox, who works double-time as a parent educator at the center to preserve program money, said depending on the size of cuts she receives next year, the center could have to eliminate its pre-Kindergarten day care program, which hosts at least 40 children per year.

But until lawmakers pass a budget, Cox and the program remain in limbo.

"I really need to see the amount (of funding) before I can even do anything," she said. "It could have a huge impact on us. It's really hard to plan ahead and to evaluate and see if the daycare can do (the pre-K program) again knowing the state is already behind on payments."

The effort

That's where the interest groups and their sway comes in.

Groups have flooded lawmakers' offices during the legislature's two-week spring break with phone calls and meetings in efforts to gain a more meaningful budget, mainly one that includes a tax increase to more adequately fund the state's needs.

And although a tax hike seems unlikely, groups are lobbying nonetheless for significant reform.

"The real threat is that elected officials are going to continue to repeat the mistakes of the past taking half measures or delaying real budget solutions out of political expediency," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union for state workers. "I think people wonder, and rightly so, whether lawmakers are concerned at all about the people of Illinois or if they are only about self-preservation."

Now, the challenge becomes making sure those lawmakers don't forget what they've heard from constituents and comfortably slip back into a Springfield-state-of-mind that could kick the proverbial can down the road.

"It's clear to anyone who can read that this is a huge problem that has to be addressed," said David Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "Walking away is not going to solve anything. We're looking at massive cuts that will really impact students in August. We're going to have to start using some untraditional methods to change (lawmakers') minds."

But what could work?

"Well, 20,000 layoffs is pretty untraditional," he said. "More parents are getting involved. There are pockets of students holding rallies. That doesn't happen very often."

Flooding the Capitol

Leading the charge is the Responsible Budget Coalition, an umbrella organization of more than 200 interest groups from around the state.

The coalition has preached face-to-face interaction with lawmakers via roundtables, town hall meetings and personal meetings and hopes to culminate its efforts in an April 21 rally expected to bring as many as 15,000 people to the Capitol.

Lindall said the demonstration will likely be the largest of its kind in the city's history.

But more important is the rally's message, he said.

"What is really important more than the particular number is that lawmakers feel the tremendous pain that the budget crisis is inflicting on their constituents in every part of the state and the real sense of disappointment and anger people feel at the inaction by legislators to fix the problem," Lindall said.

The coalition's rally will be lobbying for the passage of House Bill 174, which raises the state's income tax and makes other reforms to avoid such deep spending cuts. It passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House.

Democrats and Republicans have been at odds in the House over the approach: Democrats have a majority but don't want to pass a tax increase with only their votes, and Republicans don't want to help Democrats do that without getting the spending cuts and reforms they want.

Sean Noble, director of government relations for Voices for Illinois Children, said informing lawmakers of what is at stake when they return could be vital to the task.

"Sometimes, the atmosphere in Springfield is clouding their memory of what is important back home," he said. "Then when they return home, it's either to a community of families that they have helped sustain through a new revenue increase; or they have to return home to far more ruin in education, health and human services."

Brian Feldt can be reached at 217-782-6292 or