Metro-East News

State Senate committee hears testimony from mayors, SIUE on budget cuts

Local speakers told state Senate Appropriations Committee members Friday morning that the proposed budget cuts will be devastating to the metro-east during a meeting at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Speakers included SIUE officials, who are facing significant cuts in state funding for higher education, and the mayors of Belleville and Edwardsville.

The mayors spoke about the proposal to cut the cities’ share of income tax by 50 percent. Mark Eckert of Belleville and Hal Patton of Edwardsville spoke as mayors of the county seats, supported by Collinsville Mayor John Miller and Smithton Mayor Ray Kline.

“We are an old city with old infrastructure and sewers,” Eckert said.

He said Belleville has spent $45 million on sewer improvements to comply with state and federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements, as well as other unfunded mandates.

“We’ve done all these things, because it’s the right thing to do, but it is (an) expense,” he said.

Eckert said when the recession hit, Belleville laid people off and trimmed the budget, with 20 fewer positions now than in 2008.

“Tightening your belt and making tough decisions is something we all have to do,” he said. “All we will do by drastically cutting the (Local Government Distributive Fund) is to cut essential services or force cities to raise property taxes or other taxes, which no one wants to do.”

Patton said the cuts are really a threat to jobs. The level of reduction Edwardsville faces would be the equivalent of half the police department or the entire street department, he said.

“This problem did not occur overnight; the state’s budget has been in trouble for years,” Patton said. “You cannot tax your way out of this, but you also cannot cut your way to prosperity. The best solution is to grow your way out of the mess that you’re in.”

Eckert also said the immediate, drastic cuts are a “sudden nightmare.” Budget planning began months ago, he said, and right now cities are approving budgets for a fiscal year beginning next month with no idea what kind of funding they might receive. A gradual reduction would have been easier to manage, he said.

Impact on SIUE

SIUE Chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe said the proposed 31.5 percent cut in university funding would total more than $60 million for the SIU system, nearly $20 million for SIUE alone, and would include a total loss of funding for the school of pharmacy — one of only three pharmacy schools in the state and the only one outside Chicago.

“This would take us back to funding levels last seen in 1986,” Furst-Bowe said. “People have said that we could just increase tuition. We would have to increase tuition by 112 percent. I don’t think students or families could afford that.”

She estimated that about 30 percent of SIUE students are first-generation college students, who generally have a higher need for support services than other students.

Furst-Bowe said SIUE is in competition with Missouri schools and offers “the highest quality for a much, much more affordable price.”

Even with the 5 percent tuition increase approved Thursday by the board of trustees, Furst-Bowe said SIUE will remain one of the lowest-cost universities in Illinois, but that advantage would be lost if there are significant tuition increases. She also said decreasing the number of classes offered means that it will take students even longer to graduate, which also increases student debt upon graduation.

John Navin, interim dean of the school of business, said since the university’s foremost mission is educating college students, among the first cuts would be the “business incubator” programs. For example, the Small Business Development Center is “constantly busy,” he said, and cuts to programs like that would have an effect throughout the business community of the metro-east.

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, pointed out that the economic impact of SIUE is more than half a billion dollars annually for a dozen counties surrounding Madison County.

“I could give you any number of people on my street who work here, who have graduated from here; it brings people to our state,” Manar said. “SIUE is a success story because of the faculty, staff and students here. This is truly a shining example of what’s right about Illinois.”

“The budget that has been proposed has been described as unconscionable, and that’s exactly what it is,” said State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. “It may be numbers to the governor, but to us it is people, real people, and they are citizens. They’re hurting … These are necessary services, not waste and fraud.”

Reductions in Medicaid

Testimony from area hospital leaders focused on the proposed reductions to Medicaid, particularly in the area of psychiatric care.

Gateway Regional Medical Center in Granite City is the only hospital with a mental health care ward. CEO Ed Cunningham said they were planning a 25-bed expansion, but now will be looking at cuts. Some patients walk in, while others are referred by emergency rooms or law enforcement.

Patients are already being transported as far as Quincy, Harrisburg or Champaign while hospitals may have psychiatric patients waiting two or three days in emergency rooms while they wait for a bed to open up, according to hospital officials.

Peggy Sebastian, a nurse at St. Joseph’s in Highland, said one child who needed inpatient psychiatric care had to be sent to Champaign and the mother did not own a car. The mother was very upset, Sebastian said, because her child would be in a hospital, and she would not be able to visit.

“She told me, ‘I’m the only positive influence on this child’s life,’” Sebastian said.

Hospital officials said the state will see patients taking up more-expensive emergency-room space or ending up in jails. Cunningham said they might have as many as eight to 12 people waiting for space in the Gateway Regional emergency room at once.

Jim Fraser, director of business development for Chestnut Health System, said their program serves nearly 10,000 people a year in the metro-east, and 35 percent of the outpatient clients are struggling with addiction to opiates. But their funding is already down 30 percent since 2008.

“The proposed budget is frightening to us when we look at the potential impacts on the individuals and families we serve in the state of Illinois,” he said. “We hear that cuts must be made before new revenues can be considered, but those people need to realize that cuts have already been made, and steep cuts at that … Ignoring these facts serves to mislead the people of the state of Illinois.”

With the proposed cuts, Fraser said, patients with mental health and addiction problems will “inundate” local emergency rooms. “They already are,” he said. “Our jails have become our largest mental health system.”

Fraser pointed out that Gov. Bruce Rauner has formed a commission to look at reducing the incarceration rate in Illinois.

“It is wholly inconsistent to focus on reducing incarceration rates while simultaneously reducing services that help keep (people with mental health issues) out of prison,” he said.

A.J. French of Sacred Creations said she experienced years of hospitalizations and suicide attempts, as well as homelessness, in her fight against mental illness.

“Today my life is quite different than it was over a decade ago,” she said.

From homelessness and hallucinations to owning her own home with a job she loves, she said public mental health is vitally necessary.

“You can fund our lives or you can fund our deaths,” she said. “Of all the pain I have ever experienced, hopelessness was the worst.”

French said with the invisible nature of psychiatric illness, ongoing recovery support is “absolutely necessary.”

“It’s as necessary for someone like me as insulin is to someone with diabetes,” she said.

Hearing reaction

Haine said while he knew the proposed cuts were drastic, he was not aware of the impact on the wider community or programs like the SIUE Pharmacy School or the hospitals’ struggles with mental health care.

“This was very enlightening to me,” he said.

However, Haine said the outlook in Springfield is “very dim.” He said he was more in favor of the proposals Rauner offered as a candidate, to keep the state’s increased income tax for a year and then gradually reduce it, giving the institutions time to adjust to incremental reductions. He called it a more stable business plan, and said he had reminded the governor of it at a recent meeting.

“I’m absolutely puzzled and disappointed that that plan was abandoned,” Haine said.

Haine said Friday’s hearing at SIUE was focused on hearing from the leaders of metro-east institutions affected by the cuts. There will be another hearing that will offer average citizens the chance to give testimony as well, he said; it has not been scheduled, but it will take place in the metro-east area.

A handful of young people wearing Gov. Rauner T-shirts briefly entered the hearing holding signs supporting his “tough choices” for Illinois. They remained only for a minute before leaving the hearing silently.