Metro-East News

State political bickering led to local pain, local officials say at state budget forum

Schools districts, social service agencies and local governments felt the pain of the two-year budget impasse caused by political bickering, panel members said Thursday.

Art Ryan, the superintendent of Cahokia School District 187, said partisan politics led to budget issues and hurt local entities.

“No one wants to be the guy who’s going to stand up and do the job,” Ryan said. “No one wants to say, ‘Here’s the problem and the only way to address this is to fix the taxes, or do this, or cut this program,’ because they all have constituents and they’re afraid they’re not going to get re-elected.”

The comments were made during a forum at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio and NPR Illinois on the state budget and challenges ahead. About 50 people attended.

The panel included Ryan, St. Clair County Director of Administration Debra Moore, and Senior Services Plus Director Jonathan Becker.

The panelists discussed the effects of the budget impasse, and how school districts, local governments and social services agencies were hurt.

Eventually a budget was passed when there was pressure to make sure schools opened on time.

Becker said the senior population is growing in the state, and because of the impasse, Senior Services Plus had to cut back on how many fresh meals it could deliver. Instead of a hot meal five days a week, it now has to deliver five frozen meals one day a week. The meals allow people to stay in their homes, which is much cheaper than being in a nursing home.

Becker said there are 54,000 people over the age of 60 in Madison County, with 1,700 people turning 60 each year, with 10 to 15 percent living at the poverty level.

“It’s a juxtaposition to be in at the time the state budget has caused so many crises for an agency like ours, who are also a large employer, but we’re also facing the biggest growth of the largest segment of the population that will be around for the next 20 to 30 years,” Becker said. “Services aren’t even close today to what they need to be to support people let alone grow with what the potential will be for the next 20 years.”

Becker’s agency contracts with the state to provide services. He said the state was on average 10 months behind on payments, which would affect cash flow, like any business.

“The state, in essence, has manipulated the situation because of this budget impasse,” Becker said. “If your business would operate by providing goods and services at your cost and you don’t get paid, you take a loan out at a higher percentage than what you’re getting paid back for by the state. You’re so grateful when you get paid, you think that’s normalcy. It’s not, it’s insanity.”

He said when people don’t get mental health services, or after school services for students, there could be future costs.

“When you cut out safety nets for things, it costs us money down the road,” Becker said.

Moore spoke about the how unfunded mandates hurt local governments, and how new property tax exemptions make it harder for local governments to generate revenue in order to deliver services to residents.

“Many of our legislators are married to special interests,” Moore said. “What we see is often a preference of the legislators rather than broader understanding of the greater good.”

Ryan, who said he is retiring at the end of the school year, said a lack of state funding has led to class sizes of 28 to 30 students, and a reduction in teachers over the years. He said the district has been shorted more than $14 million in state aid since 2011, which he said is a common problem.

The district has had to cut more than 80 positions, and has a higher property tax rate than the average rate. The district’s tax levy only generates $9 million, which is only 10 percent of its budget.

He said elected officials have to work together to get things accomplished.

“In days gone by, people would talk with each other. They were willing to compromise to make agreements, and now the political mood is ‘I have to win and someone else has to die,’” Ryan said.

Ryan did say constituents would need to demand more from elected officials.

“I think it’s going to take the population of the state contacting their local legislators demanding they create an environment of cooperation and working together and solving problems, and we’re no longer going to stand for you guys not doing things,” Ryan said.

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter