PI Original Angela Caputo Thursday May 28th, 2009, 2:58pm

A Hunger Strike Under The Dome

This afternoon marks the second day of an ongoing hunger strike
at the Illinois statehouse by six citizen activists who have formed the group Hungry
for Justice. With the help of the Black Caucus, the strikers are stationed in legislative offices and churches near the ...

This afternoon marks the second day of an ongoing hunger strike at the Illinois statehouse by six citizen activists who have formed the group Hungry for Justice. With the help of the Black Caucus, the strikers are stationed in legislative offices and churches near the capitol.  Their goal is to draw attention to the devastating cuts to state programs that will be required if legislators fail to pass a budget that generates new revenue. At a Blue Room press conference today, Chicago activist Maria Diaz of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council had these harsh words for lawmakers who are waffling on an income tax hike:

DIAZ: It's a shame that our people, our representatives that are here today, have to do a hunger strike for their basic needs, for education, for health care, for 300,000 children who need [medical] help. And tomorrow it might be gone.

I'm asking our legislators, please pay attention to what's going on. Look around you. Let's get it together and do the right thing.

As we've repeatedly pointed out, the bulk of the state's financial obligations go towards education, Medicaid, and pensions.  The first two areas of spending are largely protected from cuts because they are either tied to the federal stimulus or the state is mandated to fund them under existing laws. So if the General Assembly fails to pass one of the income tax hike proposals currently being considered, the resulting cuts will largely fall on human services and other programs aimed at the state's neediest residents.

With only four days remaining in the session, we asked Rep. Will Burns (D-Chicago) this morning what the odds were of passing an income tax hike in the House.  He gave it a 40 percent chance. "The problem is that this is happening in a vacuum," he said. "We haven't seen a budget that reflects a $7.5 billion cut ... Right now, it's really abstract."

That's exactly why the demonstrators have taken up the hunger strike. They're hoping to put a human face on those vulnerable citizens -- at-risk children, the disabled, seniors who rely on home care -- that have been lost in the capitol chaos this week. The Sun-Times talked to one of the strikers, 87-year-old Mahaley Somerville of Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood:

"These are programs that are necessary. I hope they don't cut. I got a granddaughter in a wheelchair, in a wheelchair all her life. She's 24. I also have a great-granddaughter who has autism. These people need these programs. ... What's going to happen if I need these services? Please, I'm asking our elected officials -- whoever is in charge -- do not cut these programs."

To make matters worse, Burns told us that eliminating home health care workers, afterschool programs, and community health clinics will have a ripple effect that will weigh down the state budget for years to come.  Specifically, he pointed to higher nursing home costs, more young people in the criminal justice system, and so on. He added: "While people are balking about an income tax increase, they're a penny short and a pound foolish because it reduces fiscal pressure at the outset."

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