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State budget crisis threatening to make deeper cut in aid for children

Jerry Stermer acting director Governor's Office Management Budget addresses 100 social service workers local officials attending conference child welfare Hoffman

Jerry Stermer, acting director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget, addresses 100 social service workers and local officials attending a conference on child welfare in Hoffman Estates Monday. | Dave Gathman ~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 14, 2012 1:02PM

HOFFMAN ESTATES — “Children are caught up in a budget crossfire at both state and federal levels,” said Joan Vitale of the not-for-profit group Voices for Illinois Children as she emceed a symposium on that problem at St. Alexius Medical Center on Monday.

But, two state legislators from this area asked, if an already-broke state of Illinois does not cut its spending on things such as preschools, daycare for working moms, and medical care and nutrition programs for poor children, then what else can be cut to make ends meet?

About 100 people attended, most of them employees of not-for-profit groups that work with children or parents and rely at least partly on government financing.

The speakers included the acting director of the Illinois Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, Jerry Stermer; plus state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine; state Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates; Park Ridge Police Chief Frank Kaminski; and Janine Lewis from the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition.

The symposium coincides with the release of a Voices for Illinois Children report on the condition of the state’s children, called “Illinois Kids Count 2012.” It breaks down many of its findings by county and even by school district. The report is available at

Crespo, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said one topic that he thinks needs more attention, and “is a big issue in (Elgin area) School District U46,” is teenage pregnancy. He said that can lead to lifelong problems for both mother and child.

“This is a tough year” for state spending, he said. “You all realize that. But next year will be even tougher,” Crespo warned the social services people.

Kaminski said he wonders why most people aren’t as horrified by the weekly toll of teen shootings and gang violence as they were in 1958 when a fire killed 99 people at the Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago.

“The fire caused shock and awe,” he said. “We got new building codes for schools and requirements for fire drills. When’s the last time you heard about a deadly school fire? But when it comes to today’s violence, where is the shock and awe that will provoke people into doing something about it?”

Kaminski argued that when it comes to preschool spending, “it’s pay me now or pay me later.”

He said children who do not attend preschool are five times more likely to be arrested for something and 70 percent more likely to commit a violent crime by age 18.

But Murphy said every agency and group asking for state help argues that its program really will save money somehow, such as by lowering juvenile delinquency or reducing sickness. “At the end of these meetings, sometimes I leave thinking, ‘If only we had spent more money, we would have less of a deficit,’ ” he joked.

Budget boss Stermer, who also has a background in childhood development, agreed that programs for 3- and 4-year-olds such as Head Start can bring extra benefits, and even save money down the line, by improving a child’s character and social skills.

“Kids do well when families do well, and families do well when the community supports them,” Stermer said.

But Stermer said budget cuts for the coming fiscal year reduced the number of children who can be served by subsidized preschools from 90,000 to 72,000. And he said that’s just a sign of things to come as the state drowns in expenses elsewhere, especially for public employee pensions and Medicaid.

Pension problems

Stermer, Murphy and Crespo agreed that the biggest thing that has to be cut is the pension system. This now has an underfunded liability estimated to be at least $83 billion, or three times as much as everything the state spends on everything for a year. “Decision makers for 50 years have been saying that someone will take care of this later,” Stermer said.

With state spending being a “zero-sum game,” Stermer said, child causes compete against other interests. For example, he said Gov. Pat Quinn wanted to cut annual spending by the Department of Children and Family Services by $20 million a year. But lawmakers voted to increase that cut to $50 million and use the other $30 million to keep open the Tamms super-max prison, which Quinn doesn’t think is needed.

As a result, Stermer said, DCFS will have to eliminate a program for “intact families,” in which counselors work with troubled families in an effort to keep their children from having to be put into foster care. “We had 50,000 children in foster care, more than any other state. The Intact Families Program allowed that to go down to 15,000,” he said.

Pension reform is “the more-than-800-pound gorilla” dragging down the whole budget, Murphy said. “I regret that we have to redo our promises to (pension recipients), but the money just isn’t there.”

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