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‘Creative Bookkeeping’ Prevents Illinois Layoffs

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (Photo: Getty/Scott Olson)

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (Photo: Getty/Scott Olson)

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Nearly 2,000 state employees, seven communities across Illinois and thousands of people dealing with mental disabilities and illness got some good news from the state of Illinois, thanks to a little creative bookkeeping.

Officials tinkered with the state budget to come up with extra money that Gov. Pat Quinn can use to run seven state facilities he had planned to begin closing within days. They also shuffled money around to come up with more cash for substance abuse services, community mental health programs and even funerals for indigent people.

There are tradeoffs, however.

Some of the money for the facilities is available because Quinn used his veto powers earlier this year to cut education spending, particularly $89 million that helped pay for school buses. Officials also found surplus money in a special fund that helps support government pension systems. The struggling pensions get the full amount they were promised, but the extra $95 million is going to other programs deemed more urgent.

Other cuts raise the question of why some money was ever put in the budget at all.

For instance, Illinois abolished the death penalty in January, but the budget that was signed in June still included money to pay the legal costs of capital cases. Now officials have decided they can reallocate $6.1 million by cutting that.

The bottom line is that Quinn and the Legislature found a way to avert the shutdown of seven state facilities: a prison in Lincoln, a juvenile detention center in Murphysboro, mental institutions in Tinley Park, Rockford and Chester, and developmental centers in Jacksonville and Dixon.

They’re earmarking $202 million to avert the closures and beef up other areas that Quinn said did not have enough money to operate for a full year.

Rep. Frank Mautino, a Democratic specialist on budget issues, said Quinn was right about not having enough money. Mental institutions and developmental centers would have been forced to stop paying employees around February under the original budget, he said.

By announcing plans to close the facilities, instead of waiting and asking for more money in the spring, Quinn pointed a very bright spotlight at the situation.

“Politically, it got a lot of people paying attention to it and created a lot of stress in communities throughout Illinois,” said Mautino, of Spring Valley.

Overall, the plan worked out by Quinn and the Legislature does not increase state spending. Instead, it cuts in some places and grabs unused money in others, then shifts that spending to services deemed more critical.

That saves the jobs of about 1,900 state employees Quinn was going to lay off, despite his agreement last year not to cut jobs or close facilities in exchange for union concessions.

A key union the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees applauded the cancellation of the layoffs but noted another problem remains unresolved. The budget deal doesn’t provide money for raises required under the employees’ union contract.

Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said it’s wrong of the state not to honor agreements after employees made concessions to trim government spending. “At the end of the day, we believe they have a legal and moral obligation to pay the raises,” Bayer said.

The new spending plan is also good news for many residents of state mental institutions and developmental-disability centers.

If those facilities had closed suddenly, some residents would have been squeezed into remaining institutions. Even more would have been released into the community with limited help to find homes, arrange medical care, find work and all the other tasks of building a life.

Public hearings on the potential closings produced a litany of gloomy predictions about what would happen if residents were forced out without proper community services.

The reprieve is only temporary, however. The Quinn administration and many lawmakers want to proceed with a slower, better-planned shift away from big institutions over the next few years. The same institutions are likely to be on the chopping block again in the near future.

“Over the next three years we’re going to be moving more and more to community care. This is something that I think is in the best interest of the men and women who are in the facilities now,” Quinn said Thursday.

Mautino noted that the facilities being saved from closure are primarily downstate and that much of the money to save them comes from programs that primarily benefit downstate communities. When he signed the budget over the summer, Quinn cut $11 million to pay regional superintendents around the state and the $89 million to help schools pay for busing students.

Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, complained that state government is basically breaking its word to schools.

“I’m just holding out some hope that we’ll fulfill the promise we made to school districts when we mandate that they do certain things and transport students,” he said when the House debated the proposal Tuesday. “That doesn’t seem to be a priority of the administration or the General Assembly at this point.”

The plan also tinkers with the budget to bring in more federal money, which then goes to services that were shortchanged the first time around.

This is done by putting $140 million into a special hospital fund that qualifies for federal Medicaid matching. Then the state’s money is used for its original purpose and the new money from Washington goes to substance-abuse programs, community mental health, funerals for the poor and more services that were hit particularly hard in the original budget.

“I’m looking forward to having those services restored,” Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, D-Chicago, said in debate. “The citizens here in this state, many of them who cannot afford to have lobbyists down here, are looking upon us.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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