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Senate approves new poison center funding plan

SPRINGFIELD–With the Illinois Poison Center threatening to close its doors in July without additional funding, a divided Illinois Senate agreed to divert funds Thursday indirectly from local 911 centers to help keep the poison-control program afloat.

The bill, which passed 43-13 in the Senate and goes to the House, would redistribute monthly cell phone fees collected outside of Cook County among the Illinois Commerce Commission, local 911 centers and the poison information and treatment center, which is based on the North Side.

“Over the last many years, the wireless carriers have not used that fund to its entirety and built up significant balances, which have been transferred to other purposes on a fairly regular basis,” said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor. “Not only did the Poison Center identify that as a source of potential funding, so did the 911 centers, which are struggling to make sure they’re adequately funded.”

The poison center, which cares for 82,000 poison-related cases a year, reported losing 25 percent of its funding in the last few years and losing half a million dollars annually. Although the state provides $1.3 million in funding, the center maintains it’s not enough to keep going.

Here’s where Harmon’s plan would step in. Nearly $0.02 of the $0.73 charged in fees on a person’s monthly cell phone bill would go to the poison center. Harmon estimates that would generate $1.5 million to $2 million a year.

Similarly, Harmon’s plan would boost funding to local 911 centers by about $0.06, allocating $6.25 million more a year to their cause.

But the 911 centers opposed Harmon’s measure, even though Harmon said the bill would get them more money. The reason?

After two years, if wireless carriers who currently draw from the cell phone fees don’t use up their allotted funds, local 911 agencies collect the leftovers—a situation which led to a payout of $11 million in fiscal year 2013.

So if Harmon’s bill passed, an anticipated $1.5 million would go toward poison response in the first year alone and not in the piggy bank of local 911 agencies.

“We should not be diverting funds,” said Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, who urged a “no” vote. “This is a major concern to any of your 911 services that get thousands upon thousands of calls every day to emergency service.”

Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, suggested working the IPC issue out in budget appropriations instead of pursuing Harmon’s proposal.

“The bottom line is, in the end result, whether it’s next year or three of four years down the road, there will be less money available for the 911… call centers, because two cents would then be going to the Poison Control Center, another additional one cent will be going to the Commerce Commission,” Sullivan said.

But Harmon insisted he and his colleagues, who voiced concerns about the legislation, had “different views of math” regarding Senate Bill 2674.

“This is not a diversion of 911 funds,” he said. “If the wireless carriers do not draw off their funds, if the General Assembly and the governor do not transfer those surplus funds to other services, if those things do not happen, then two years later, the money is transferred to the 911 centers. There is no certainty whatsoever that that money goes.

“Under my proposal, there is certainty, and there is acceleration,” Harmon continued. “Those monies move immediately with certainty, predictability and the ability to budget.”