Senate hearing on DHS cuts draws large crowd to Bilandic building

SHARE Senate hearing on DHS cuts draws large crowd to Bilandic building
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The room at the Bilandic Building was packed when the Illinois Senate Appropriations Committee heard testimony on Monday about Gov. Rauner’s proposed budget. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

A line of people nearly spilled out the door of the Michael A. Bilandic Building on Monday as the Illinois Senate Appropriations Committee heard testimony on proposed budget cuts to the Department of Human Services.

Those cuts could affect parents like Emily Garrity, who said her family benefited from the state’s Early Intervention program. She said her son’s doctor became concerned when, as an 18-month-old, he “really didn’t have any words.”

Garrity said her family saw “immediate benefits” from the program. Speaking on behalf of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Garrity said therapists also taught her that she had skills, like sign language, that could help her son. But she said her family would have been cut from the program under the proposed changes in eligibility guidelines.

“The earlier that you reach these children, the better,” Garrity told a Senate appropriations committee. “And, I mean, I just want to ask ourselves as a state, I mean, aren’t kids of the state our foundation?”

Next year’s proposed budget reduces the Department of Human Services by $423.8 million, officials said. And the budget for the Early Intervention program would be reduced by $23 million, affecting 4,000 children.

But, said an aide, Gov. Bruce Rauner had to do something about the state’s fiscal woes.

“Illinois is in a fiscal crisis because of years of financial recklessness and overspending,” said Catherine Kelly, a Rauner spokeswoman.

“And Gov. Rauner had to make some difficult decisions to close a $6 billion hole,” Kelly added. “The Early Intervention Toddlers program will continue to receive funding, but eligibility will be adjusted to prioritize the most vulnerable children.”

But Ireta Gasner, assistant director of Illinois policy for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, said Rauner’s budget “includes harmful and short-sighted changes.”

The governor’s wife, first lady Diana Rauner, is president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. Nevertheless, the group last month reacted to the governor’s budget address with a statement that said it was “deeply concerned about many potential cuts, particularly to the Child Care Assistance Program and Early Intervention programs.”

Gasner argued Monday the cuts to Early Intervention would affect 10,000 children — more than half of those in the program.

“And yet, these are the very children who actually can benefit the most when they get these services early,” Gasner said.

Earlier, Maria Torres of Cicero had waited in the lobby of the Bilandic Building to get into the hearing with her sister and two young nephews. Torres, an organizer with the Community Renewal Society, said her sister is a single mother. And if the proposed cuts are passed into law, Torres said, her sister would have less help taking care of her children.

“It’s a moral document,” Torres said of the proposed budget. “And we don’t think that the budget reflects the values of our communities in which we need to support people who are disadvantaged and who are in need.”

The line to get into the Monday’s hearing at the Bilandic Building stretched into the lobby. | Jon Seidel/Sun-Times

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