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Rauner budget is ‘the most difficult cuts I’ve ever seen’

Illinois was 50th out of 50 before.

Dead last, of the 50 states, behind Mississippi, behind Alabama, behind Texas, for services to help people with disabilities live independently.

That was five years ago.

Now dig a hole, because Illinois is going lower, as Gov. Bruce Rauner’s new budget, unveiled Wednesday, chokes off help to Illinoisans struggling to get by.

What ‘Illinois can afford”

“It’s going to be huge,” said Gary Arnold, spokesman for Access Living, which supports independent living for those with disabilities. “Tens of thousands of people are in these programs.”

Sister Rosemary Connelly, the 83-year-old nun who founded and directs Misericordia, the North Side residence for people with cognitive challenges, did not mince words.

“The budget scares me very much,” she said, “because they’re trying to resolve a problem on the back of God’s most vulnerable people. It’s so unfair, if this is a society that really cares about people.”

In addition to community support, care for the emotionally disturbed, as always, gets hacked.

“Mental health always seems to get cut first,” said Tiffany Taft, a licensed clinical psychologist in Oak Park. “Because of the stigma associated with it. It’s easier to sweep under the rug.”

Taft pointed out that, in Rauner’s defense, this kind of budget is nothing new.

“It’s been ongoing; Quinn did it too,” she said. “I think it’s horrendous.”

Taft can’t take Medicaid patients, so she spends hours on the phone trying to find public clinics whose waiting lists aren’t three months long.

“They cut options to people in crisis,” she said, “and then they wonder why people go on shooting rampages.”

Like many private charities, Misericordia, uses public funding, and when that falls short, must make it up the difference with private donations. Last year that meant finding $15 million in donations. With the new budget, that jumps to $21 million.

“I don’t know if I have that capacity,” said Connelly. “We’re worried about the future.”

And they’re in a better position than most.

“So many people [are] scared silly by this budget,” said Connelly. “Looking beyond Misericordia, looking at Catholic Charities.”

“It’s hard to tell right now,” said Monsignor Mike Boland, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “It’ll affect a lot of our programs if fully implemented the way it is; it will greatly affect the most frail people in the state, especially frail seniors…The budget is balanced on the backs of very poor people. It’ll affect all our early childhood centers. This has a negative impact, a very negative effect, upon all the populations we serve.”

Director of Catholic Charities for 15 years, Boland has seen austerity budgets. But never one like this.

“This is probably the most difficult cuts I’ve ever seen,” said Boland. “I never seen these kind of profound cuts proposed. It’s just so incredibly challenging to all of us trying to care for people who oftentimes don’t have anyone to speak on their behalf.”

For those long in the business of extracting funds from the government to help people, a common refrain is that the announced budget, dire though it is, isn’t the end, but the beginning of the true battle.

“We have a new administration; they’ve got a lot to learn,” said Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc, the largest disability advocacy organization in Illinois. “We would like the opportunity to sit down with them and educate them of the importance of community living. This is the first step in a budget process that’s going to go on four or five months.”

Access Living’s Gary Arnold pointed out that one of the cruel ironies of the cuts is that since they dismantle programs that allow people to live on their own, they’ll end up back in institutions.

“You lose your independence and it costs more,” he said. “If the goal is saving money, we’re going about it the wrong way. The right way is good strong programs that support people with disabilities in integrated communities and their own homes.”

Yes, Illinois is in a terrible financial hole. Cuts have to be made. But picking over the stories about Rauner’s 2016 budget, all you see are programs for the poor, for children, for the homeless, for the mentally ill and physically challenged. If there is a cut that’s going to hit businesses, that’s going to affect rich people like Bruce Rauner, maybe encourage them to own five mansions instead of nine, I missed it. The pain is going to be felt by the sort of people who never show up at Rauner’s cocktail parties.

Sister Rosemary said she has to wonder what motivates the governor.

“I think it’s a real indictment of a philosophy of resentment [that] there are people who need more help and have to depend on the goodness of others,” said Connelly. “What we’re doing is important. I wish the governor would come and take a tour.”

Paulauski did mention a bit of good news: Illinois is no long the last state; it has climbed to 49th when it comes to providing community services to people with disabilities.

“We’re ahead of Mississippi,” he said. “I remain optimistic.”