Rauner does about-face on child care eligibility changes

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Gov. Bruce Rauner is backing down from changes to eligibility requirements that sharply restricted access to state-subsidized child care — a move back in July that drew widespread condemnation from advocates for the working poor.

The governor’s office called this week’s development a result of close cooperation between Rauner and the Democratically controlled Illinois Legislature, although some observers said the governor appeared to be heading for political defeat if he’d persisted with his widely unpopular rule changes.

“The governor’s office thanks the serious, good-faith negotiations by members of the legislature who made today’s announcement a reality,” Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said in a written statement. “This bipartisan agreement will allow us to avoid the unintended consequences and costs that SB 570 would have brought. By working together, we will be able to bring financial stability to an important program valued by members of both parties.”

Senate Bill 570 seeks to undo Rauner’s earlier changes and to limit his powers in the future.

Sessy Nyman, vice president for public policy at the advocacy group Illinois Action for Children, hailed Rauner’s about-face as a “great decision.”

“It’s long overdue to provide much needed relief to low-income working families of Illinois,” Nyman said. “It’s not everything, but we never get everything we want in Springfield — that’s pretty much the rule. It’s a significant step forward in terms of ensuring that families who need to work can access affordable, quality child care so that their kids can start school ready to learn and are in safe, enriching environments.”

On July 1, Rauner imposed new rules that sharply restricted who qualifies for state child care assistance, making some 90 percent of those who previously applied ineligible. Before July 1, a mother of two had to have an income limit of 185 percent of the federal poverty level — $37,176 a year — to qualify for child care assistance. Rauner’s rule change meant that dropped to 50 percent of the poverty level — or $10,045 a year. Under the changes announced Monday, the income limit for a comparable family rises to 162 percent of the poverty level  — or $32,556.

RELATED: Brown: Rauner’s reversals unlikely to jolt Springfield into gear

Rauner’s administration also plans to form a task force to look at the program’s stability.

Advocates claim that a Rauner administration memo issued last week pegged the current caseload at more than 90,000 children. That’s a 70,000-child reduction from the 160,000 caseload cited three months ago by former Child Care Assistance Program administrator Linda Saterfield.

Marisol Nieves, owner of Little Einstein Day Care in Logan Square, said she started providing child care services in Hermosa in 2003. The bulk of her enrollment was through the state program. Now, it’s less than ten percent.

“Low-income families need help because they cannot work without the help of this program. If they do not work, how will their families survive? That just means an increase in the need for public assistance. What will that mean for the city and for the state?” Nieves said.

Some political experts said Rauner saw the writing on the wall ahead of legislators meeting in Springfield Tuesday, when the House is expected to seek a vote on the bill restoring cuts to the child care program and limiting Rauner’s future ability to make those cuts.

“He just simply withdrew rather than get whipped,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “It’s probably smart. This is clearly a sensitive issue. … Rauner may have thought he got on the wrong side of public opinion on this and he simply beat a tactical retreat.”

On the Senate side, Sen. Toi Hutchinson [D-Olympia Fields], issued a statement Monday saying she planned to hold the bill in the Senate until Republicans make good on Rauner’s rule reversal announcement later this month.

Some Rauner critics said legislation — such as Senate Bill 570 — still is needed, citing the 11th-hour nature of Rauner’s compromise.

SEIU Healthcare Illinois President Keith Kelleher issued a statement noting that Rauner budged “only after bipartisan public outcry across Illinois over the pain and suffering caused by cuts that have kicked 70,000 kids off child care,” and that Rauner’s “arbitrary actions, which should never have happened in the first place, show just why, deal or no deal, we still need Senate Bill 570 to pass tomorrow, to remove the ability for a governor, Democrat or Republican, to use unchecked executive power to destroy by rule those programs created by statute.”

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Rauner’s decision was a way of “face saving.”

Redfield cautioned against reading too much into Rauner’s retreat.

“It’s not a signal,” Redfield said. “You can’t read into this that the governor is now going to abandon wanting to make changes in collective bargaining and workers’ comp. . . . This is [just] one aspect of the budget.”

Rauner’s about-face was announced just as child care providers, advocates and low-income parents were turning up the heat on General Assembly to reverse his eligibility restrictions.

They were joined at the City Hall news conference by members of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus who have long demanded universal, full-day child care, perhaps funded by a financial transaction tax on LaSalle Street exchanges that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has long opposed and has now prohibited by state and federal law.

Informed of Rauner’s decision to get behind an amended rule raising income eligibility to 162 percent of the federal poverty level with no change in co-pays, Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) was unimpressed.

“It’s a day late and a dollar short. We need to fully-fund this day care system to be able to provide working families with a viable, safe alternative in order for them to be able to go back to work,” Munoz said.

“You can’t governor by press release. The legislative process is in place specifically to negotiate what [Senate Bill] 570 should look like.” 

South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) agreed that the Senate bill is the “best opportunity” to get struggling child care providers paid and kids the care they need” so their parents can feel free to go to work.

“When they’re not getting paid, they can’t pay their workers. They have to close their doors. They can’t sustain themselves any longer. In my neighborhood, these are predominantly African-American women-owned businesses. I can’t allow that to continue to happen and devastate my community. My next-door neighbor is a child care provider. We talk about it all the time — how devastating it is to her already,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer said he is “encouraged” that Rauner is “trying to do something.” But, he said, “I don’t know yet if that’s enough.” The alderman noted, prior to the governor’s cuts, the eligibility level used to be 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

With 162 percent, Sawyer said, “We’d still be leaving some people in the wind.”

Also Monday, Rauner announced his office had reached an agreement with business and labor organizations to reform Illinois’ unemployment insurance system. Under the proposed rule changes, a worker would be ineligible to receive unemployment benefits if, for example, they consumed alcohol or illegal drugs while on the job or if they provided false information in an employment application. Currently, such violations wouldn’t disqualify someone from receiving benefits.

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Associated Press

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