A panel of Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday grilled Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget director and human services chief over $26 million in recent social service cuts, saying the slashing took them by surprise after they believed they had filled a gaping budget hole.
Several lawmakers cautioned Rauner’s administration that the so-called “Good Friday Massacre,” a surprise announcement that suspended funding for immigration, autism and epilepsy services, did not bode well as both sides try to build trust before brokering next year’s budget.
Under pressure by his caucus after the cuts, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan called for a budget oversight hearing to have the governor’s office answer how it went about selecting what to cut.In late March, the Legislature voted on a compromise plan to fix the $1.6 billion budget hole. Lawmakers said they were taken aback when the governor’s office made additional cuts on its own while the General Assembly was on its spring break.
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, asked Budget Director Tim Nuding whether there was “a tone deafness in the response by the bureaucrats” to a “very loud” message from lawmakers that they wanted programs like autism protected.
“It was news to me too that there were still gaping holes,” she said.
Nuding acknowledged that communication could have been better.
Parents for children diagnosed with autism testified that services are scarce, and closure of a Springfield office left families without access to essential therapies for their children. Those relying on the state for help in obtaining epilepsy services also testified about their need for help.
“You cannot make this budget on the backs of children. It’s unethical, it’s not right. I realize there is a crisis here. I live in a crisis on a daily basis that never ends. If you stop therapy and stop help for these kids, there’s no hope for these kids,” testified one mother, who brought her daughter to the hearing. “You cannot do what you all are doing. I realize there’s a budget.Cut the road budget. Cut your own salaries. Cut your own pensions. These children did not ask for what is happening to them.”
Nuding said no programs were targeted without much consternation, and it was a simple matter of having to fix a problem the administration inherited.
“We have suspended good programs because we simply don’t have the money to pay for them. We’ve had to suspend some good programs, there’s no question about it. These are very difficult decisions,” Nuding said. “Do I personally wish they were made last May? I do. But they weren’t. We inherited a horribly unbalanced budget and we are working to the best of our ability to balance it and fix the problem.”
State Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, grilled acting Human Services Secretary Gregory Bassi, including pointing out that Bassi is an attorney.
“I don’t have a lot of background in human services,” Bassi said. He said he doesn’t believe he would remain in the position long as Rauner searches for a permanent secretary.
Bassi said the department was dealing with a crisis and “took an approach, from the bottom up” of what could be cut to fill the budget gap from this fiscal year. Bassi explained there simply was not much to choose from once setting aside what’s mandated by law.
“We tried to make the best of a very difficult and crisis situation really,” he said.