Free up cash for social services, public universities

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The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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As Illinois social services and public universities struggle with funding cutoffs, the Illinois House made the right move Thursday by voting to dust off $817 million that has piled up in two special accounts. Instead of lying around, the money would be sent where it’s needed.

The Senate should support this sensible legislation, even as it continues to push for a budgetary grand bargain that could get the state’s finances back on track for good.

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A new United Way survey shows just how much social agencies are hurting. Sixty-nine percent received either partial payment or no payment at all for services they have provided for the state this year — almost double the percentage of a year ago, which was bad enough. Forty-six percent have had to pare down the number of clients they serve and a full quarter have had to eliminate programs altogether.

As for public higher education, Northeastern Illinois University has had to cut three days of instruction. That’s on top of unpaid furlough days staff members were already forced to take as the school shut down for spring break. Eastern Illinois University is getting ready to eliminate academic programs. Western Illinois University has laid off more than 100 instructors. Some high school counselors are advising Illinois students to attend college in other states.

Under the House bill, $559 million would be freed up for higher education and $258 million would go to human services. The state already has the money, but hasn’t been able to release it because, without a state budget in place, there is no official appropriation.

Gov. Bruce Rauner opposes turning over the money, saying he prefers passing a full budget, tied to non-budget measures he favors. Rauner said the House bill would keep public universities and social services “on the verge of collapse.”

But ask anyone teetering on the verge of a cliff: It’s better to be there than going over altogether.

Even if the Senate finally agrees on a grand bargain that includes new revenue, it is less and less likely the bargain will cover what remains of the 2017 fiscal year, which ends June 30. In earlier discussions, any income tax increase was to have been retroactive to Jan. 1, which would have provided some revenue for the current fiscal year. But doing that in April — or later — would require withholding a bite out of workers’ paychecks that’s just too big.

Without a budget in place, pain stretches across the state. Seniors with disabilities are losing services. Cutbacks on mental health services, substance abuse treatment and after-school programs will drive violence higher. Once-proud university campuses are reeling.

The state has the money to help. The Legislature and governor should speed it along.

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