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Thursday, May 4, 2017 12:01 am

“Past Due” hears stories of impasse pain

NPR Illinois and AARP hold first of 11town hall meetings on the budget impasse

 Concerned citizens gathered at a public forum in Springfield April 27 to share their stories of the budget impasse and how it’s affected them.

“Over the last 22 months, we have had devastating impact to the people we serve and to the community because of the budget impasse,” said Theresa Collins, associate executive director of Senior Services Plus in St. Clair County. “We had to close our transportation services, so hundreds of people who were getting rides for dialysis, therapy and work are no longer getting those rides. Though there is public transportation, these are people who can’t stand at a bus stop for long periods of time or get on the bus without assistance.”

Teresa Haley, president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, questioned whether legislators cared about the plight of citizens around the state. “I don’t think that our legislators are in denial, I think that they don’t care,” she said. “We need to stand up and fight because if you don’t stand up for anything, you’ll fall for everything.”

The forum, “The State Budget: Past Due,” was held at the Wyndham Springfield City Centre. The event was cosponsored by AARP Illinois, NPR Illinois and Illinois Issues.

According to the annual state audit released in March, Illinois had a budget deficit of $9.6 billion in fiscal year 2016. Additionally, a recent backlog report by the state comptroller revealed that the state owes $11.6 billion in unpaid bills.

Bob Gallo, AARP Illinois director, said that the event is the first of 11 forums that will be conducted around the state. Gallo hopes the forums will open a dialogue to expose the detrimental effects of having no budget. “Illinois is the only state in this country that cannot seem to pass a budget. It’s ridiculous,” Gallo said. “By doing these forums and reaching out to our 1.7 million AARP members in Illinois alone, we’re asking them to challenge their elected legislators and the governor to say, ‘What is your plan for putting Illinois back on the right fiscal path?’”

Moderated by NPR Illinois 91.9 FM radio host Sean Crawford, the forum featured a panel of three budget experts: Howard Peters, president of HAP Incorporated, Amanda Vinicky, “Chicago Tonight” correspondent and Jonathan Lackland, director of state government relations at Illinois State University.
“I can tell you from experience that the quality of service and the quality of life is declining in the state of Illinois, and it’s all man-made,” Peters said. “It’s a crisis, a disaster in some instances, that’s created by the people we elect to represent us.”  

Lackland said higher education has suffered in the last two years. “At the end of the day, we get those phone calls from parents and students who ask us one simple question: ‘If I stay in Illinois and you do not continue to get a budget, will my degree have any value, ever?’” he said.

Last week, Western Illinois University and Southern Illinois University’s debt were downgraded to junk bond status by Standard & Poor’s, a financial credit services company. Furthermore, the credit score of the University of Illinois was lowered. “We have seen a lot of finger-pointing, but it’s our job to make sure that we’re holding those people who we put in office accountable,” Lackland said.

Peters said that a contributing factor of the budget crisis is citizens’ reluctance to voice their criticism to lawmakers. “A big part of the problem at the moment is that ordinary people, voters, are not raising their voices enough to create enough tension on the decision-makers to feel that now is the time they must act,” he said. “Having spent time in state government as I have and having worked in a governor’s office, I can tell you that letters, phone calls and emails matter.”  

Alex Camp is an editorial intern for Illinois Times. He is pursuing his master’s degree at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact him at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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