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Youth layoffs all part of the new direction voters chose with Rauner

More than 30 Chicago area social service agencies discovered an unwelcome surprise in their email inboxes late last Thursday afternoon.

A letter from the Illinois Department of Human Services tersely informed them to “cease any and all operations” funded by state grants they were awarded in the closing weeks of Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration.

The contract awards, which were announced Dec. 17 and took effect Jan. 1, were intended to provide job training, after school and other “youth development” programs.

Some $8 million total was involved, a drop in the bucket compared with the $1.5 billion budget deficit that Gov. Bruce Rauner says he inherited from Quinn upon his Jan. 12 inauguration.


But it was enough to give hundreds of Chicago area teens and young adults an unpleasant first taste of the austerity measures that may be in store for many more Illinois residents in the coming months.

The resulting protest Tuesday outside the James R. Thompson Center, led by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, promises to be a frequent sight as Rauner puts his stamp on state spending.

“Help us,” the St. Sabina pastor called out to me from the front of a picket line as frozen protesters chanted: “Restore the funding now.”

I’m not sure there’s much I can do other than make readers aware of what is happening.

The voters of Illinois have spoken, and they have opted for a change of direction for state government.

If layoff notices to hundreds of young people working to do some good in their communities while staying out of trouble wasn’t the direction voters intended, then they ought to let the new governor know. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

“Unfortunately, Governor Quinn signed a budget that is unbalanced by $1.5 billion. The administration is taking action to manage the inherited budget hole and is working with the Legislature to find responsible solutions,” read the statement from a Rauner spokesman that I am sure will be used to answer any number of media inquiries in the next few weeks.

For some reason, Rauner’s team made no announcement about the canceled contracts last week and couldn’t be troubled for details in advance of Wednesday’s State of the State address by the new governor.

Therefore, I have no idea whether the new administration thinks there was something wrong with these particular contracts, or if it’s just part of Rauner’s larger effort to freeze spending.

The youth development grants were canceled at the same time Rauner’s Department of Human Services was warning that it’s nearly $300 million short of funding for its subsidized day care program — another byproduct of the under-funded state budget approved by Quinn and the Legislature because of the expiration of the temporary income tax increase.

Believe me, if you’re asking yourself why Quinn’s people went ahead and awarded these grants after the election when he’d already lost and clearly knew the state was running out of money, I’d like to know the same thing. But they’re not there anymore.

Community groups were invited in September to apply for the grants and told the awards would be made by Nov. 1. But the decision of who would get the money was postponed twice, perhaps because of a heightened sensitivity caused by the furor over Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, where anti-violence grants were awarded right before the 2010 election.

Pfleger may have been the wrong guy to have out front in this protest, as he is closely identified with Quinn, having gone to bat for him to defend the NRI program.

But I doubt if it was easy to find anyone else as willing to take a chance on antagonizing the new governor.

I can personally vouch for one of the groups that lost its funding.

Communities United, formerly known as the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, had planned to use its $276,000 grant mainly to operate its popular Bikes N’ Roses program, which I have written about previously.

The group employs neighborhood youth after school and during the summer to work in its bike repair shop, where they are trained not only to completely overhaul a bicycle but also to work with the public, to come to work on time and to meet deadlines.

Oscar Rivera Jr., the program director, had already hired 50 kids and was planning to open a second shop in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. Some had quit other jobs to take this one, he said.

Rivera said it’s been difficult to explain to all those he laid off how the state could break its commitment.

If it’s any solace, they will soon have plenty of company.