Legislature's Decisions Have Local Impact

The last weeks of the state legislative session hold dire consequences for our neighborhoods. As usual, more decisions are being made in backroom deals than by meaningful debate and votes in public.
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This column originally appeared in the "Chicago Journal."

The last weeks of the state legislative session hold dire consequences for our neighborhoods. As usual, more decisions are being made in backroom deals than by meaningful debate and votes in public.

Legislative decisions that will affect us include university budgets, pensions, and Medicaid cutbacks in addition to shredding the social safety net, closing mental health facilities, cutting funding for the homeless and shutting prisons.

We are all familiar with Illinois' problems. State government has a structural debt up to $13 billion. It has unpaid bills of more than $5 billion, causing service providers like the Counseling Center of Lakeview and the Hull House Association to close. It has a future gap in pension funds amounting to $83 billion dollars.

Bond rating agencies have threatened to lower the state's rating again making the cost of borrowing money too expensive.

So the day of reckoning has arrived. Last week, the legislature passed a bill that will cause state employees, downstate teachers and university employees to pay more for health insurance on retirement. But that is only the first round of pension wars.

More sweeping proposed legislation would increase employee pension contributions by 3 percent. At the same time, universities and school districts would pick up the contributions that the state used to make. For the University of Illinois, that could be up to $186 million a year and for smaller colleges like Northeastern University, $24 million. If these costs had to be made up by tuition increases, tuition could jump as much as 40 percent putting college out of reach for thousands of students while cuts in faculty and staff make classes larger and offered less frequently. For school districts in the suburbs and downstate, the jump in property taxes to pay for pensions could be astronomical, causing more home mortgage foreclosures and strangling economic recovery.

The cut of $2.7 billion in Medicaid payments -- eliminating clients and cutting reimbursement to neighborhood hospitals, doctors and clinics -- will cause them to turn patients away or increase their debt. We'll all likely to wait longer for emergency room treatment whatever our income when these cuts hit.

The only solution to the crisis is shared sacrifice that everyone regards as fair. Economic recovery from the recession has been slow and even if it were to arrive tomorrow, it will be years before state government revenues rebound.

When faced with a recession in the 1990s Governor Edgar asked "Will anyone die if we make this cut." Similar to a doctor's oath to "first of all, do no harm." Votes being taken in the legislature will inevitably harm to some extent. We must make sure that we protect the next generation and our future in the global economy. Let's insure that the cuts to schools and universities are as small as possible. Today's students will in the future create the new inventions and create new companies needed for economic growth, provide the trained work force necessary to compete in the global economy, and the citizens and civic leaders to provide leadership for decades to come. But they can only get there if we provide them with a first class education.

Moreover, we shouldn't punish state employees and teachers who have faithfully paid -- every month -- into the state pension program. They may have to pay more for health care, and future employees may be granted less generous pensions, but current and past employees have served us honorably and diligently for decades. While they and their direct employers may have to pay more, that shift must be fair and gradual, not sudden and arbitrary.

Neither can the shift in Medicaid funding be so draconian that hospitals and doctors are forced to abandon care of the most vulnerable in our society.

In these critical decisions we should demand that state legislators represent our needs. Let them consider these difficult choices carefully on our behalf, rather than voting blindly as party leaders demand. Let's not balance the budget solely on the backs of public employees, teachers, future generations or the poor.

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