Budget fury boils over in town hall

AARP hosts 'Enough is Enough' event

ILLINOIS -- Angry voters aired their grievances at state politicians over the lack of a state budget Thursday night at a town hall event hosted by AARP and NPR Illinois. 

The 'Enough is Enough' town hall drew more than 150 people to a hotel venue in downtown Springfield where a panel of guests gave thorough explanations for how Illinois arrived in this unprecedented budget crisis and floated theories on how the state's leaders might forge a comeback. 

Panelist Amanda Vinicky, a Chicago Tonight correspondent, told the audience, "The budget battle isn't just about the budget. It is about so much more."

Vinicky went on to explain why the 2014 election of outsider businessman Bruce Rauner triggered a domino-effect of fierce debates complicated with power struggles, court battles and ideological showdowns.

She detailed how Governor Rauner has tied a tax increase to a number of other significant demands such as worker's compensation reform, term limits, pension reform and the one issue which riles Democrats more frequently than any other: systematically deconstructing the power, leverage and organization of public sector unions. 

Howard Peters, the executive vice-president of the Illinois Hospital Association, highlighted the unprecedented nature of this standoff. 

"In the past, budget impasses lasted 30 days, 45 days, and people in essence came to themselves and passed a budget," he reminisced. "It's the fact that we've gone through entire fiscal years without a budget that's so unique." 

Human service providers have been hit the hardest as the state plunges further into a financial abyss.

Theresa Collins drove all the way from Belleville to share her story. She's the associate executive director of Senior Services Plus, Inc. 

"We have lost nearly twenty percent of our staff in [senior care] programs," Collins said with a quiver in her voice. "Those are people who have been with our agency for years. When we sat and told them their positions were being eliminated, they cried. Not because their position was being cut, but because of the effect they knew it would have on the people that they served." 

She claims some seniors who were receiving meal deliveries five days a week are now down to just one.

The state's backlog of unpaid bills is quickly careening toward the $12 billion benchmark; a number which seems unfathomable to most taxpayers. Last month, Comptroller Susana Mendoza illustrated the cost as a $1,000 debt for every man, woman and child in the state. 

The overall state debt is actually much higher. A study published last month by Truth in Accounting shows a $210 billion budget shortfall at a cost of $50,400 per taxpayer. The median income in Illinois in 2015 was roughly $59,000. 

Panelist Dr. Jonathan Lackland, director of state government relations for Illinois State University, said he was all too familiar with the burden of the budget battle weighing heavily on state schools. 

"But at the end of the day, all we have seen is a lot of finger-pointing," Lackland said.

Reminding the audience that the "squeaky wheel gets the grease," he called on voters to put immediate pressure on their politicians by writing letters, making phone calls and reaching out to members of the media who can help amplify their personal stories. 

Dozens of seniors lingered at a table near the back of the room to sign a petition vowing to "demand action for a comprehensive solution." 

Thursday afternoon, for the first time this year, Governor Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan met privately and spoke for nearly 40 minutes. They each released dueling statements at the end, both claiming their intention to advance a budget. 

Rauner's statement led with a heavy dose of invective scorn:

"For the first time in more than two years, Speaker Madigan today hinted that he may be willing to enact a truly balanced budget with changes that will help create jobs, properly fund our schools and lower property taxes."

Madigan's press release took credit for arranging the negotiation: 

"I requested a meeting with Governor Rauner to ensure he understood my desire to pass a full-year budget and discuss the urgent need for a resolution to the state budget impasse."

Two prominent Senate Democrats previously declared their skepticism they would reach a full budget before 2019. Senate Majority Leader Don Harmon, of Oak Park, and Senator Daniel Biss, of Evanston, both expressed serious doubts any budget would be passed before the next election. 

A number of Springfield seniors took the microphone at Thursday night's town hall and vowed to vote their elected officials out of office if they failed to reach a budget before then. 

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