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After 2 Years Without A Budget, Debt And Pain Are Mounting In Illinois

After nearly two years without a budget, the state of Illinois and those who depend on it may be running out of time.

Lawmakers are scrambling to approve a new budget before a midnight deadline on Friday but an agreement between Republicans, led by Gov. Bruce Rauner, and the Democratic leaders in the Legislature appears distant.

The epic political showdown started after Rauner took office in 2015, vowing to cut taxes and reduce the influence of Illinois' powerful public-sector labor unions. Most of the state government is still largely functioning through a series of court orders.

The state has accumulated nearly $15 billion in unpaid bills, and state comptroller Susana Mendoza warned last week that cash reserves are so low that Illinois "will not be able to meet its core priorities, including schools," by August.

Bond rating agencies such as Standard & Poor's have threatened to downgrade the state's debts if an agreement isn't reached and have blamed the "unrelenting political brinkmanship" for putting Illinois "at risk of entering a negative credit spiral."

The political fight has dragged on for so long, in large part, because the pain and anxiety of the budget standoff have been invisible to many in the state.

Drastic steps

This building houses Fox Valley Older Adult Services in Sandwich, Ill. The state of Illinois owes the organization nearly half a million dollars because of a long-running feud between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Legislature.
Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
This building houses Fox Valley Older Adult Services in Sandwich, Ill. The state of Illinois owes the organization nearly half a million dollars because of a long-running feud between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Legislature.

But the many nonprofits that provide social services in the state, such as Fox Valley Older Adult Services, have felt the impact of the budget wars.

Located in the town of Sandwich, about 90 minutes west of Chicago, Fox Valley has contracts with the state for two programs: a day center and home-care services.

Because of the budget fight, the state owes Fox Valley $478,000 — about a third of its annual budget.

Margaret Duffy, 71, says coming to the center saved her life.

A few years ago, she had been laid off from her job. She lived by herself and was getting depressed.

"You know, you didn't do anything," Duffy said. "And then the more I stayed home, and the more anxious I got."

Finally, her doctor and son got her to start coming to Fox Valley's day program.

"We laugh, No. 1. We sing. We play cards. We make jewelry. We paint. We take a nap if we want. We watch movies and have a great lunch," Duffy says. "And I don't know what I'd do without it."

But in order to keep Fox Valley open, director Cindy Worsley has had to take drastic steps.

"We are still serving those people, we are still paying the aides," Worsley said. "So how do we do that? We have other bills we're not paying."

She held off a number of creditors. She asked workers to delay getting paychecks. She loaned the program money. And eventually, she even stopped paying federal payroll taxes.

"The IRS won't wait either, but it takes them a little bit longer to get to you. And when they do you have to start figuring out some way to pay it, or you lose it," Worsley said.

Social service providers are suing the state over not being paid.

"What they're doing is they're banking on — in the most cynical way — they're banking on the fact that we give a damn, and we won't turn our backs on these clients, we won't shove them out into the streets, that we won't lay off our employees — until it's impossible for us to do anything else," said Andrea Durbin, who runs the "Pay Now Illinois" coalition that represents about 100 social service providers.

Stealth government shutdown

This is a story that's repeating itself across Illinois — it's been a sort of stealth government shutdown. There are hundreds of programs that also haven't been paid — for homeless teens, AIDS patients and victims of domestic violence. But this aspect of the state budget crisis is happening largely out of public view.

In fact, almost two-thirds of Illinoisans say they have not been affected by the stalemate, according to a poll earlier this year.

"I figure they'll get it together sometime," said George Cowper, a retiree who lives in Springfield and says he's been unaffected by the standoff.

The lack of public pressure has made it easier for each side to stay in its corner.

Gov. Rauner says he hates to see social services going without funding although he once talked about using the threat of defunding them as a "wedge" to force Democrats to go along with his agenda to weaken public-sector labor unions. But so far, Democrats have refused.

After not conferring all year, the state's top Republican and Democratic lawmakers have finally started meeting this week as this latest budget deadline approaches.

Copyright 2017 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Brian Mackey