By Bethany Jaeger
A short-term borrowing plan approved by the General Assembly to prevent drastic cuts to human services might not be enough to prevent layoffs of workers who advocate for people with disabilities throughout the state.
A network of about two-dozen Centers for Independent Living were told earlier this month that starting October 1, a state grant that pays for recruiting and training personal assistants for individuals with severe disabilities would be cut. The so-called Home Services grant is funded through the Illinois Department of Human Services. It also pays for training of the people with the disabilities so they understand their civil rights when working with caseworkers and so they learn ways to manage their personal assistants.
The 23 Centers for Independent Living that operate throughout the state run on shoestring budgets, said Ann Ford, executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living based in Springfield. They already anticipated a 10 percent reduction in funding as part of the fiscal year 2010 budget agreement, which is expected to result in furlough days and potential layoffs. Cutting the Home Services grant on top of that would affect between 2,500 and 3,000 individuals who are served under the program each year, according to Ford.
For Mark Karner, director of advocacy for Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park, that means he’s out of a job Thursday. Karner also has multiple disabilities and needs a machine to help him breathe and a home aide to help him get out of bed each morning, among other daily functions. He expects to be on a job hunt, or, if he couldn’t find a flexible employer, then he would have to file for unemployment or Social Security, which he has not had since before he started working at Progress Center 16 years ago.
Tom Green, spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said it all comes down to the budget. “It’s the toughest financial challenge that Illinois has ever had. Everyone has to make sacrifices. There’s a limited amount of revenue in the budget that was passed by the General Assembly, not enough to cover all the expenses. And DHS has made cuts in all budget areas.”
He added that cuts to community-based services would have been far deeper, as much as 50 percent, without a $3.4 billion borrowing plan approved by the General Assembly in July. About $2.2 billion of that was slated for community-based human services. But that same budget agreement also relies on Quinn reducing another $1 billion in spending. The General Assembly gave Quinn unprecedented discretion in where to cut.
Ford said she was “very disappointed” in that budget agreement.
“We continue to borrow. We don’t really act like adults and look at what do we need to do to have enough revenue in this state to support the programs that allow some people some dignity in their lives,” she said. “It’s a huge disappointment to me that that was the option that was chosen, and it’s a bigger disappointment to me that the General Assembly then went home and said to the governor, ‘Do whatever you want to do.’”
On July 31, Quinn said that he would spread the cuts out in a way that would maximize federal matching and stimulus funds. And he said he would fund health-related initiatives that focus on disease prevention and that reduce demand for more expensive services later.
Karner said zeroing out the Human Services grant would do the opposite. Mike Ervin, for instance, needs the personal assistants. But he’s lived in his own condominium in Chicago as a freelance writer, a playwright and a community activist, and he’s not enrolled in Medicaid. Losing the personal assistants grant program, Ervin said, would take the system back 30 years. “Not only does it keep me out of nursing homes, but I employ five people. And it keeps us paying whatever taxes we do. It’s just positive all the way around. It’s the wave of the future, it’s the way the future should be going. And cutting it just such a huge regression.”
Karner said a meeting for consumers affected by the Home Services grant is scheduled in Chicago Friday. “I guess there’s still some glimmer of hope that the governor will change his mind before October 1,” he said.
Rallies against the cuts also are scheduled next Monday in Springfield and Chicago. Ford said if the centers don’t know by mid-September whether the grant will be restored, more layoffs are expected.