Governor’s budget cuts would hit all over state

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – College students, Amtrak passengers and Medicaid patients would be among the Illinoisans to feel the impact of $1.5 billion in budget cuts that Gov. Rod Blagojevich says might be necessary.

The cuts would hit all facets of state government and touch the lives of many Illinois residents unless the governor and legislators find another solution.

From gutting Amtrak train subsidies to delaying health care provider payments, Blagojevich’s planned cuts would go deep in some areas to repair a budget for the year starting July 1 he says is $2 billion out of whack.

The administration already is working with some advocates and interest groups who want to avoid the chopping block.

“Our goal isn’t to make anyone the bad guy,” said Howard Peters, lobbyist for the Illinois Hospital Association. “Our goal is to do what we can to encourage the Legislature and governor to work toward a solution.”

Blagojevich laid out the doomsday of cuts Tuesday to pressure the House to send him revenue-generating ideas already approved by the Senate that would fill much of the budget hole.

The governor is giving them until July 9 to do so. House leaders say they aren’t inclined to come back right away and try to pass budget ideas that have significant problems.

Health care providers would see some of the biggest cuts under the governor’s plan.

He wants to slash $600 million from health care programs, including $530 million geared toward ensuring providers get paid for serving Medicaid clients within an average of 70 days. That will climb to 90 days or more with the cut, and Peters predicts it could cause a financial crunch and put health care access at risk in some areas.

That possibility is why the association is working with Blagojevich officials to urge legislators to step in.

“It’s not a theoretical problem, but it’s a problem that’s real and going to play out on the homefront,” Peters said.

Other prominent cuts include eliminating subsidies for Amtrak, affecting train routes to and from Chicago at points throughout the state.

Rape prevention and domestic violence services would be cut. State agencies would have fewer personnel. Seniors and veterans programs would be trimmed. Social service providers serving the developmentally disabled and mentally ill would have less money.

Colleges and universities were in line for a nearly 3 percent increase under the budget lawmakers passed but would see more than $100 million taken back under Blagojevich’s plan. A spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education says the schools will talk to lawmakers about the fallout but are used to getting by with less state money.

“The higher education community has been accustomed over the last few years to dealing with very tight budgets,” board spokesman Don Sevener said. “Institutions and agencies will make do.”

Other advocates are making louder protests.

A group calling itself the Illinois Legislative Voter Coalition bused in dozens of people for a rally Wednesday morning outside the state’s James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. Blagojevich budget spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said the rally was not connected to the governor’s office.

Ralliers such as Kelly Marshall say they’re worried about what cuts for health care, summer jobs and other programs will mean for people already struggling to get by.

“I wouldn’t be able to get to school,” the 45-year-old single mother said of what would happen if funding for a service group she works with is cut.

Rev. Walter Turner said organizers are tired of battles between lawmakers and the governor clouding community interests.

“And this is why we’re bringing light to this, because somebody needs to say something about this, because it is, it is hurting us,” Turner said.

But some advocates aren’t buying in.

Jonathan Goldman, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said he met Wednesday afternoon with Blagojevich officials to get answers about cuts he’s concerned about – mainly train service and Department of Natural Resources staffing.

He said his group was told it should lobby lawmakers to spare the cuts.

“I’m not prepared to be a pawn in this game,” Goldman said. “It’s the governor who’s making these cuts, not the legislators.”