- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Illinois lawmakers approved a plan Tuesday to direct almost $5 billion in federal funds to social service agencies after one advocate described the state’s long-running budget problems as a “death march” for the organizations and the people they serve.

The $4.8 billion would be used to fund programs that provide nutrition to women and children, help low-income residents pay their utility bills and offer cancer screenings to people who cannot afford them, among others.

Mike Schrimpf, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Bruce Rauner, said the Republican supports the plan, which the Senate approved unanimously. It now moves to the House.

The federal dollars - mostly “pass-through” money that doesn’t require matching state funds - have been caught up in the budget impasse between Rauner and Democrats who run the Legislature. The governor vetoed most of the budget Democrats sent to his desk for the fiscal year that began July 1, noting it was almost $4 billion short of revenue.

Because lawmakers haven’t approved spending the funds, social service agencies that rely on the money have had to cut services or tap cash reserves. Some, already struggling after years of state funding cuts, have closed their doors.

Agency representatives said their organizations and clients have been some of the hardest hit by the budget stalemate. Because of court orders and state law, state workers are still being paid, pension payments are being made and even Illinois’ two state fairs are slated to be held this month as scheduled.

“Perhaps it’s time to change our state motto from ‘Land of Lincoln’ to ‘We don’t care,’” said Al Riddley, a board member Illinois Partners for Human Service, which represents more than 800 human service agencies statewide. He said the agencies were in a “death march,” struggling to survive.

State Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and chairwoman of a Senate appropriations committee, said human services will continue to suffer, even with access to the federal funds, and she hopes lawmakers negotiate a full budget soon.

“This is not the way to be running the ship,” she said. “We know that.”

Rauner has said he won’t sign off on a spending plan until Democrats pass pieces of his business-friendly agenda. Democrats say the governor’s priorities will hurt working people.

Meanwhile, Rauner’s office sent notices to public-employee unions Monday announcing more than 140 state workers will be laid off effective Sept. 30 because of the budget crisis.

The state’s largest employee union said 94 of its members are affected, including 24 at the Illinois Commerce Commission, nine in the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and seven at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Chris Young, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said 107 agency workers will be laid off. Many of them work at the Illinois State Museum, which Rauner has targeted for closure.

Senate Democrats advanced legislation Tuesday to keep the 138-year-old state museum and its satellite locations open, noting it provides jobs and economic and cultural benefits. But the bill doesn’t include money to keep operating the facilities, and Rauner was standing by his decision to close them. His office said that doing so would save about $4.8 million per year.

The Senate also approved a plan to freeze property taxes for two years, overhaul the formula Illinois uses to fund public schools and require the state - rather than city taxpayers - to pay the employer contribution for Chicago Public Schools teacher pensions.

Rauner supports the idea of a tax freeze but opposes Senate President John Cullerton’s bill because he wants the freeze to be coupled with a measure to allow local governments to opt out of collective bargaining with public employee unions.

The governor also opposes a bill Senate Democrats approved to change Illinois’ workers’ compensation insurance system. Rauner has said lowering the cost of the insurance for employers is a top priority, but he and other Republicans said the measure didn’t go far enough.

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The bills are SB2042, SB317, SB318 and SB162.

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Follow Sara Burnett on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sara_burnett


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