Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday December 14th, 2015, 4:54pm

Illinois Activists Play The Lotto To Highlight State's Misguided Fiscal Priorities

Child and family advocates drew attention to state services going unfunded during the Illinois budget impasse by playing the lottery Monday afternoon.

Leaders with the Responsible Budget Coalition played scratch-off lottery ticket games, saying they would donate any winnings to the state for services in need of funding, including programs for seniors, low-income college students, children with epilepsy, immigrants and others.

Coalition leaders, who won $4 from the scratch-off tickets, held their event in response to Gov. Bruce Rauner's signing of a $3.1 billion spending bill last week that freed up funds for lottery winners, municipalities, emergency dispatch centers and domestic violence shelters. Specifically, the legislation allocates $1 billion for the lottery.

"While they are handing out (a) billion dollars to lottery winners, they're shortchanging working families and communities throughout Illinois," said William McNary with Citizen Action/Illinois and the Responsible Budget Coalition.

"This is a real bill that happened while the legislature met. They met and voted to pay off gamblers," he added. "It is our contention that if they can meet to do that, surely they can find a billion dollars to fund services."

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic legislature have yet to agree on a budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which began July 1.

Rauner is trying to win items on his "turnaround agenda" through the budgeting process, including workers' compensation reforms, a property tax freeze and limits on collective bargaining. The governor wants reforms implemented before considering new revenues.

Democrats, who have supermajorities in both chambers, oppose many of Rauner's proposals, especially those seeking to curb the power of unions. They want a budget that includes a combination of cuts and new revenue. Democrats have not yet advanced revenue measures for the current fiscal year's budget.

"We need this governor to stop holding the children, seniors and families hostage to his union-busting agenda," McNary said. "We need this governor to sit down with the lawmakers and come up with a bipartisan revenue solution to solve our budget crisis. If the governor can sign a bill to pay gamblers, he can surely sign a bill" to fund other important services.

The group called on the governor and lawmakers to choose "revenue and tax fairness over more cuts to vital services." To avoid deep budget cuts, the Responsible Budget Coalition supports ideas such as closing corporate tax loopholes, restoring the temporary income tax rate to 5 percent and expanding the sales tax to cover luxury items and services, McNary said.

After the Responsible Budget Coalition's event, Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly issued a statement:

The most responsible budget Illinois can have is one that is balanced, instead of the one passed by the Democratic super majority that was out-of-balance by $5 billion. Illinois' fiscal crisis is from years of overspending and financial mismanagement that require the structural reforms the governor has proposed. Our reforms will free up resources to help balance the budget and our most vulnerable communities, while growing the economy. However, the super majority in the legislature continues to block those reforms. 

While many state services and programs are being funded in part through court orders or with federal dollars during the budget standoff, various others are being impacted because the state is not authorized to spend money on them without a budget in place. 

The Immigrant Services Line Item, for example, is still caught up in the budget battle. As a result, organizations that depend on the line item have been forced to lay off 200 employees and scale back services, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Additionally, the Epilepsy Resource Center in Springfield has closed and the epilepsy foundation in Rockford has cut nearly all of its staff, added Kurt Florian, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago, which recently laid off three staffers, representing about 25 percent of its employees.

"By failing to choose revenue and fund epilepsy services, the governor and lawmakers are literally risking the lives of children and people with epilepsy," Florian said.

Meals on Wheels programs for seniors have also taken a hit in Springfield and Alton. Come January 11, a Meals on Wheels program serving over 700 seniors in DuPage County will be reduced from five to two days a week due to the state's budget impasse.

"They just put aside a billion bucks to pay the [lottery] winners," said Charlie Hogan with the Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans. "I understand the idea of honoring a promise, but these seniors were made (a promise), and this isn't right. They need to find revenue."

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