Illinois State Comptroller Leslie Munger, left, during a visit to Safer Foundation in North Lawndale. | Safer Foundation

Earlier this month, Illinois State Comptroller Leslie Munger, the state’s chief check writer, visited the North Lawndale-based nonprofit A Safe Haven Foundation to shine a spotlight on the state’s ongoing budget impasse and its impact on social service organizations.

Munger also doubled down on her commitment to put the pay of state lawmakers and appointed officeholders like herself lower on her list of funding priorities until a balanced budget is approved.

The state currently owes the North Lawndale organization, which helps homeless individuals get back on their feet, $1.3 million. Although Safe Haven has been able to partially fill the funding gap with private donations, it has still had to cut staff and turn away clients. The austerity measures, however, could be worse, said Safe Haven’s president, Neli Vazquez Rowland. She said the budget crisis has forced many other social service nonprofits throughout the city to close their doors.

Munger has explained that, because the state doesn’t have a budget, she doesn’t have the legal authority to pay most state bills. The ones that have been paid out, including ones related to K-12 education, are ones that must be paid due to state laws. Other payments, such as a recent $600 million emergency stopgap funding bill for the state’s colleges and universities, have been released only after the legislature and governor authorized separate funding bills.

Most nonprofits like Safe Haven, however, haven’t been given similar priority by the state, since their state funding is largely discretionary. But that doesn’t negate the critical services those organizations often provide, Rowland explained to reporters after Munger’s visit.

She said her organization is more than just a homeless shelter — it offers job training classes, access to counseling services and helps people secure employment. Rowland said that state funding accounts for around 12 percent of her organizatin’s budget, noting that it’s been able to partialy make up for the loss through private funding received from businesses with which the organization works closely, including landscaping, catering, pest control and staffing companies.

“All are designed to employ the people we serve,” she said. “And we do offer valuable services to our customers.”

During her April 18 visit, Munger argued that, although the state isn’t releasing funding for nonprofits like Safer, funding them is nonetheless a priority and makes fiscal sense over the long run. But Munger emphasized that funding shouldn’t come at the expense of a balanced state budget.

“I’m trying to get [a message] out there and make the case that we need the budget and we need a balanced budget,” she said. “Since 2001, we haven’t had a balanced budget, and that’s why we have so many unpaid bills.”

Munger’s visit came one day after she announced that she’ll delay salary payments for state lawmakers and constitutional officers. She said, unlike former Gov. Pat Quinn’s attempt to pressure lawmakers by stopping payments altogether; her measure would simply put the salary payments further down her list of priorities. That means that lawmakers and constitutional officers, including Munger herself, will have to wait two months, if not longer, to get their April salaries — a delay that many nonprofit organizations and educational institutions owed state funds have grown used to.

Illinois has gone 10 months without a budget since Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner refused to sign the budget passed by the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly. Rauner has noted that he won’t sign a budget unless his Democratic colleagues sign off on his “turnaround agenda,” which includes freezing property taxes, allowing local governments to establish “right to work” laws, repealing the state prevailing wage requirement for government contracts and weakening collective bargaining laws.

Rowland told Austin Weekly News that, while Munger’s visit wouldn’t, in itself, break the budget stalemate, it would at least help to push the government in that direction.

“I think the first thing is raising awareness,” she said. “It goes a long way to helping people understand [what’s at stake].”

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...