Illinois budget impasse cuts food and transportation for vulnerable seniors

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. ( file photo)

By Jesse Bogan and Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

One night 10 years ago, coming home from a midweek church service, Barb Santos was in a horrible car crash that broke a bunch of her bones. When she finally came out of a coma, she had to learn how to speak again.

“I’ve come a million miles from the accident,” Santos, 67, a former nurse and minister, said from a wheelchair.

Now the historic budget impasse in Illinois has put another three miles between the disabled woman and what she says is her life: the swimming pool at Lewis and Clark Community College. She said swimming there for an hour twice a week makes her feel independent.


“It’s my only exercise, really,” she said. “The pain medication has to go up when I don’t swim.”

On the way there Tuesday, Santos was informed that the bus service she uses at Senior Services Plus was shutting down for the first time in 43 years. The program is one of several offered by the Alton-based nonprofit, which says it serves about 3,000 people a day in southern Illinois with anything from home-delivered meals to wellness programs.

Illinois has racked up a $1.8 million tab with Senior Services Plus since the state stopped paying many of its bills July 1.

This month, the agency had to cut back on its Meals on Wheels program from five meals a week to four. All the food is now delivered frozen, instead of hot, and a waiting list of seniors who qualify for the service has ballooned to 140 people.

“These are people who have worked their entire lives to build our communities and they are getting squeezed horribly,” said Jonathan Becker, head of Senior Services Plus.

Clients could pay market rate for the food and transportation, but the programs are designed for people who need the service regardless of ability to pay.

Santos said she used to donate $35 a month for the bus service. To keep going, as her doctor recommends, she’d need to pay the market rate of $96 a month.

“I can’t afford it, I really can’t,” she said. “I am just barely making it. I am not making it up.”

She said she lives off Social Security and isn’t “blessed” with a pension. She has caregivers who come every day who are still paid by the state.

“Without a caregiver, I would have to go to a nursing home,” she said. 

In Illinois, the annual fiscal year’s state budget is traditionally hashed out between the governor and legislative leaders, with the agreement of both sides needed to put a spending plan in place. Without a budget, the state can still collect money, but it can’t legally spend it.

The budget process broke down last year in a partisan confrontation between newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Rauner took office in January 2015, just after the expiration of a temporary tax surcharge in Illinois dropped the state’s income tax rate from 5 percent to 3.7 percent.

That created a major new funding shortfall for state services.

Democrats who control the Legislature wanted Rauner to agree to re-institute the tax to fill that hole. Rauner said he would consider it, if the Legislature would approve a collection of pro-business proposals that include loosening existing worker-compensation protections, allowing local governments to opt out of the collective bargaining process with their employees, freezing property taxes statewide, and instituting plaintiff-friendly civil court system reforms. Legislative Democrats balked, saying those are nonbudgetary items that should be debated separately from the budget process.

In the end, the Legislature sent Rauner a budget that contained an acknowledged $4 billion shortfall, and invited him to balance it by either supporting a tax hike or cutting the programs of his choice. Rauner refused, saying the Legislature had an obligation to send him a balanced budget.

With neither side budging, the state entered fiscal 2016 on July 1 with no operating budget. It still doesn’t have one seven months later.

Lawmakers and Rauner have been able to keep the lights on for selected state offices, and to continue things like elementary education funding, police protection, driver services — and, yes, legislative salaries — despite the lack of a budget, using special legislation and court orders.

But other services are seeing reductions or complete cutoffs of money. The victims include universities, many private businesses that do contract work for the state, and human-services programs like those at Social Services Plus and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois.

“It has been an agonizing process, particularly its impact on our clients and their families who depend on us for their care, as well as our employees whose jobs were eliminated,” Mark Stutrud, president of the Lutheran organization, which announced last month that it was cutting 30 programs and at least 750 positions.

In the absence of a working budget, the question of who gets funding and who doesn’t has, in itself, sparked controversy. Some say a Darwinian “survival-of-the-fittest” dynamic is at play.

State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, noted that, in December, the Legislature and Rauner approved special funding to keep motor fuel revenue flowing to local governments, even as human services programs lost funding.

“Why was that [motor fuel bill] passed? Because the mayors in the northern part of the state demanded it,” Haine said. “What is it about that that’s different than people with Alzheimer’s? People in the Alzheimer’s center don’t have the clout that a local mayor does.

“This situation is disgraceful,” Haine added. “These are essential services. These people are desperate.”

In a statement to the Post-Dispatch, Rauner spokesperson Catherine Kelly wrote: “No one is more frustrated by the lack of a balanced budget than Gov. Rauner. He has shown on a number of occasions he’s ready to compromise to pass structural reforms and a balanced budget.”

For Margie Condomitti, 79, of Caseyville, all this amounts to is more beans. Legally blind, she’s one of the 140 seniors on the Meals on Wheels waiting list at cash-strapped Senior Services Plus.

“It’s like everything else,” she said. “If you have to do without something, you substitute something else. If you have beans, then you make a big pot of beans, then you eat that today, tomorrow and the next day. You better proportion it out. That’s the way you have to get along.”

Asked about the political impasse, she leveled terse comments at Rauner, for whom she now regrets voting.

“Let me tell you this, he has cut so much for us senior citizens,” she said. “These politicians are just like [President Barack] Obama, they promise the world and they get in there and give you nothing.”

Also on the waiting list for Meals on Wheels, are Donald Page and his wife Colene, who are getting by on TV dinners and soups that are high in sodium. He has lung cancer, she is partially blind. They both have heart trouble.

“We are losing out on nutritious meals,” said Page, who worked 31 years at the refinery in Wood River.

LaVerne Logston helped start “Piecemakers” in the 1980s to raise money for seniors who need Meals on Wheels. In 2015, she said the quilting program donated $6,500, a welcome but small amount compared to demand.

“They need to get their act together up there,” Logston, 92, said about leaders in Springfield.

Other women quilting with her here last week agreed that lawmakers should go without pay, have their pensions cut while the impasse continues.

“I agree change needs to be made, but they are going about it the wrong way,” said Donna Short, 77, of East Alton. “They are hurting more people than they are helping right now with no budget and not paying people.”

So for now, Senior Services Plus is cinching its belt and drawing on its credit line at Jersey State Bank for the first time in years to stay open. Bank president James Hoefert said he was confident that Illinois would eventually pay its bills.

“They are sitting on a mountain of money in Springfield, but the governor won’t finalize this budget,” Hoefert said. “That’s my understanding.”

But it’s a risky political dance. Hoefert, a former board member at Senior Services Plus, said more responsibility will fall on the state if seniors don’t get the services they need to stay in their homes.

“We are prepared to step up and partner with them until we can get through this thing together,” he said. “We are a community bank and [Senior Services Plus is] a community service.” 

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