Illinois Budget Crisis Puts Family on Edge

June 15, 2009

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Ursula del Valle, left, fears the state will cut funding for her home-care aide, Alicia Otarola. (Chip Mitchell/WBEZ)

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has been pushing the idea for months. But legislative leaders say they still lack support to raise the state's income tax to help fill a huge budget hole. That's led Quinn to warn of severe consequences on a range of Illinois agencies. All the wrangling is elevating anxiety among people who depend on state services and jobs. Those people include three generations of a family in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. We report from our West Side bureau.

The state's budget predicament is keeping retired factory worker Ursula del Valle, 69, tossing and turning at night.

DEL VALLE: I see the news, then it takes me time to sleep because I'm thinking and thinking about what's going to happen.

Del Valle got hit years ago with lymphoma. Chemotherapy damaged her heart and she never recovered her strength. Del Valle also has rheumatoid arthritis. And her memory is starting to go.

DEL VALLE: Thank you, Alicia, for bringing me the medicine.

The Illinois Department of Human Services pays a certified home-care aide to work with del Valle three mornings a week.

DEL VALLE: She has to help me get out of bed and go to the washroom to clean myself. She makes me breakfast....

...and the aide provides del Valle some social contact. Gov. Pat Quinn says home care is on the line in the budget crisis.

Del Valle and her daughter, Rosita de la Rosa, own a two-flat building. De la Rosa lives downstairs. She leads a youth substance-abuse prevention program for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Her position depends entirely on state funding and may be on the chopping block.

DE LA ROSA: The unemployment check is not going to cover my mortgage. If I don't find a job, I might have to sell the car I bought two years ago. I might have to declare bankruptcy on some of my credit cards.

The balance on one of those cards soared when de la Rosa charged her daughter's tuition this summer at Wilber Wright College. De la Rosa says the plastic was all she had after the family got turned down for financial aid from the Monetary Award Program, a state agency the budget crisis has already crippled. Now de la Rosa's daughter is considering dropping out of school and looking for a full-time job.

Even with families like this one in turmoil, Steve Stanek says a tax increase isn't the answer.

STANEK: The state is being led by a lot of people who are intentionally scaring people like the del Valles.

Stanek works for a think tank in Chicago called the Heartland Institute. He says Illinois wouldn't have a budget crisis if the politicians stood up to labor unions, and trimmed the salaries and pensions of government employees, especially teachers. Stanek says too many Illinois tax dollars go toward pet projects and inefficient administration. He counts 357 state agencies, boards and commissions.

STANEK: They deal with low-income people, drug dependencies, alcohol abuse, the aging. The people they supposedly serve are just an excuse to spend money and have a bureaucracy running out there.

MATIRE: It's a bunch of ideological nonsense. That's not supported by data on any level.

Ralph Martire heads the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. Compared to other states, Martire says, Illinois pension benefits and teacher salaries are about average. He says taxes in Illinois are relatively low. And Martire says Illinois ranks 45th in public-service spending as a percentage of the state's economy. Do lawmakers care?

MARTIRE: It's a highly politicized atmosphere in Springfield, very much devoid from the real-world concerns from families like the del Valles. In this process, they're not even pawns. They're not on the game board.

Ambi: Help getting to bed.

Ursula del Valle's home assistant helps her into bed for a nap.

Ambi: Sobbing.

DEL VALLE: I start thinking and thinking because tomorrow maybe I can't brush my hair because they take away the lady that helps me. How about if I can't take a shower? I don't want to stink. I'm a very clean person. I like to have clean clothes.

Illinois's fiscal year begins July 1. If lawmakers don't pass an income-tax hike by then, Gov. Quinn insists he'll have no choice but to shred public services. To del Valle and her family, the doomsday threat is anything but empty rhetoric.