Democrats are pushing back on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s attempts to suspend funds set aside to help the poor pay their utility bills, calling it a “political hammer” that’s being held over legislators’ heads.
Last week, Rauner’s office announced a series of spending cuts affecting everything from businesses and prisons to the poor and the elderly. The move came as he took Springfield’s stalemate over state spending to a new level after Democratic legislators, including House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, passed a 2016 budget that’s “nearly $4 billion in the hole.” The initial cuts would save about $400 million, the governor’s office has said.
Among the cuts is the July 1 suspension of the State Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
On Thursday, at a meeting of the Senate’s Energy and Public Utilities committee, Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, blasted Rauner’s plan and pointed out that the $95 million in the fund to help the poor pay for utilities such as electricity and heat can’t be used for anything else without legislative approval.
“You have not explained to me or clarified to me what good does it do to suspend this when you can’t use it without our authorization,” Link told Mike Hoffman, the chief operating officer of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which manages the utility assistance program.
Hoffman responded that the agency is following the direction of the governor’s office, which is taking a “holistic view” of the budget.
Link didn’t buy Hoffman’s “programmed answer” and told him, “You’re trying to hold a political hammer over our heads and these citizens.”
Rauner’s office acknowledged that “legislative action is required to redirect the money in the utilities assistance fund but said in a statement, it’s “one step the administration is taking to build reserves to fill the $4 billion budget hole in the Madigan-Cullerton budget.”
Rauner’s office and Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, also pointed out that Senate Democrats earlier this year proposed using money from the utilities fund for the general fund for this year’s budget.
“We need compromise and we need reform if we’re going to have a budget that works,” Murphy said.
To which Chicago Democrat Donne Trotter responded, “By any means necessary, obviously.”
The hearing Tuesday drew experts worried that a cut to the utilities program would severely affect people’s lives and endanger the elderly, the sick and small children if heating, cooling and electricity is cut off when people can’t pay their bill.
The program collects 48 cents a month from monthly utility bills.
The federal government also provides $170 million to the program.
About 350,000 Illinois households receive the benefit, Jim Monk, the president of the Illinois Energy Association, told the senators.