SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner has defended his practice of paying top dollar to high-level state employees, saying he was willing to take the arrows to lure good people to government.
But records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times under the Freedom of Information Act show that one of the highest-paid state employees hired under Rauner isn’t making a dent in the governor’s office budget.
In March, Rauner tapped Beth Purvis, a former charter school director, as his education secretary at an annual salary of $250,000.
At the time it was the highest-paid position in the governor’s cabinet.
But her contract, signed March 13, indicates that she’s being paid out of the Department of Human Services, even as it indicates she will “report directly to the governor’s chief of staff or designee.”
Three weeks after Purvis’ contract was signed, the governor’s office announced that the Department of Human Services was strapped for cash, and sliced $26 million in services including for autism, epilepsy and burials for the indigent. The cuts, later known as “the Good Friday Massacre,” caused some programs to completely shut down. The cuts caused a furor, prompting House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, to call a public hearing on why it happened after Democrats said they believed a budget deal with the governor protected such services.
The Department of Human Services in its mission statement says it aims to serve “those who are striving to move from welfare to work and economic independence, and others who face multiple challenges to self-sufficiency.”
On Wednesday, the chair of the Appropriations-Human Services Committee in the House said he was unaware that DHS was paying Purvis’ salary, calling it “financial trickery.”
“I had no idea that we’re paying the governor’s education staff out of the Department of Human Services budget,” state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, told the Sun-Times. “It’s financial trickery, it’s not transparent. . . . This is a huge salary, especially when on Good Friday you’re cutting autism and epilepsy, and you’re paying someone at the same time a quarter of a million bucks?”
In April, the governor’s budget director apologized to lawmakers for a miscommunication and Rauner’s office later restored the cuts, saying it found additional revenue.
But Rauner’s proposed budget for FY16 has called for more deep cuts within the agency.
Reached by phone while at a conference in California on Wednesday, Purvis declined comment, referring to the governor’s office for information. The governor’s office in an email responded that Purvis was getting paid out of DHS because “a portion of her portfolio is early childhood development.” A spokesman did not respond to a follow-up question as to how the governor’s office explained the salary given the deep cuts at the agency.
Purvis’ contract also indicates among other duties that fall under DHS, Purvis will be involved in standards and evaluations of teachers, instructors and the superintendents at the Illinois School for the Deaf, the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired and the Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education.
But longtime Springfield political observer Kent Redfield said the governor’s office is failing to be transparent. Still, Redfield said Rauner isn’t the first governor accused of taking part in “off-shoring,” the practice of paying employees out of different agency budgets to make the governor’s budget appear more lean.
“Unfortunately, it’s business as usual, which our governor likes to say was in the past,” said Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “The fact that you’re drawing down the resources of an agency that’s under stress, you’re taking part of its payroll and part of its resources for someone who should legitimately be within the office of the governor — it really is a stretch to say the DHS is where she should be. You’re saying one thing about efficiency and transparency, and then you’re doing another.”
Rauner’s office — and Republican lawmakers — has blasted Democrats this week for failing to advance portions of his Turnaround Agenda before Sunday’s scheduled adjournment. A Senate panel controlled by Democrats on Wednesday blocked Rauner’s proposed changes to the state’s workers compensation law.
Before coming on board with Rauner, Purvis served as CEO of the Chicago International Charter School, a network of 15 schools in Chicago and Rockford.
After Purvis’ hiring, Rauner defended her salary, which is about double of what her predecessor was paid by the state, saying she is “well worth every penny.”
“We need her leadership because we need to comprehensively transform education and vocational training in Illinois,” Rauner said in March. “We have a mindset too much in government that everybody’s identical, everyone should be treated the same. People should be compensated based on talent. We could pay everybody the same and have lots of mediocre folks.”