Social service agencies worry about future after latest court setback

A coalition of social-service agencies has failed to get a court to order the state to pay its bills. | AP file photo

Andrea Durbin cried when she heard that the Illinois Appellate Court had dismissed a case filed by the Pay Now Illinois Coalition.

Members of the coalition, mostly human- and social-service agencies, were seeking payment for services they’ve provided since July 1, 2015, during the state’s ongoing budget impasse.

“I find it absolutely heartbreaking,” Durbin, the coalition’s chairwoman, said of the legal defeat. “We had hoped we could look to the third branch of government when the other two collapsed. To realize that the appellate court was saying to us, ‘You have to rely on a political solution,’ was devastating.”

Many Pay Now Illinois members are now worried about how long they can keep their doors open.

The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Service in Streator is one member whose future depends on lawmakers passing a budget. The agency, which also receives some federal and local money, has already had to make significant cuts to staff, which means fewer shelter advocates and counselors.

“My concern is that if we don’t have that funding, there’s no one else who provides these services in this area,” said Susan Bursztynsky, the agency’s executive director. “We’re running so bare bones that we don’t have any other services to shut down. We would have funding for another two to three months (if a budget isn’t passed).”

The state’s backlog of unpaid bills, caused largely by the budget impasse, now tops $15.1 billion, records show. Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living in Chicago, said non-profit groups are feeling the effects perhaps the hardest.

“It’s budget prep time for many right now and we’re not certain what to do,” Bristo said. “I hope the legislators and governor can sleep better at night than we can.”

Pay Now Illinois filed its lawsuit in May 2016 in Cook County Circuit Court, against Gov. Bruce Rauner, then-Comptroller Leslie Munger and state agencies that include the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois Department on Aging; that suit was dismissed in August 2016, and the coalition appealed.

Their lawsuit claimed, among other things, that Rauner’s administration exceeded its legal authority by continuing to enter into contracts with the agencies while not appropriating money to pay them. But the appeals court on Thursday agreed with the lower-court ruling that that argument was without merit.

The coalition has taken another crack in the courts at getting members paid by filing a similar suit in St. Clair County Circuit Court against the same people — replacing Munger with current Comptroller Susana Mendoza — for fiscal year 2017, which began July 1, 2016, because the budget stalemate continues. That lawsuit is pending.

Durbin, who is also the CEO of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, said the “political war” that led to the budget impasse has already cost people their safety and livelihoods — from the women who use domestic violence shelters to the students who rely on state-funded scholarships for school.

“Every single person in Illinois is going to pay for this,” Durbin said. “The recovery from this political folly will take years.”

Previously from Chicago News