BUDGET CRUSHED: This article is part of an ongoing series analyzing how the state’s budget crisis has affected West Side residents.
At recent town hall meeting in Austin, state lawmakers Sen. Don Harmon (39th) and Rep. Camille Lilly (78th) said that community programs will continue to suffer until a state budget is passed.
“Illinois has a revenue problem and that has made passing a budget and maintaining community programs extremely difficult. There’s no easy way out of it. We need more revenue to do more for communities,” said Harmon at the Sept. 14 town hall meeting held at Austin Town Hall Park, 5620 W. Lake St.
Harmon said almost 90 percent of state government, such as salaries for state employees, is being funded without a budget. Earlier this year, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an emergency spending bill to fund numerous capital construction projects and education for K-12 public school students.
Lilly told the roughly two dozen people in attendance at the meeting that lawmakers must collectively plan together in order to get this state on the road to recovery.
“Jobs create a revenue stream for the state [and] this is money that can be used to support community programs and our schools,” said Lilly, whose district includes a large part of Austin and other parts of the West Side.
One concern that was especially on the minds of residents in attendance was the rising violence in Chicago especially in Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale.
“There are not a lot of resources in our communities anymore and as a result young people are on the street more and not in school,” said Austin resident Sharon Farris. “I see kids every single day standing on the corners. I want to know how the state is addressing that problem.”
Lilly said she passed legislation that addresses the (prison) re-entry population and the barriers ex-offenders experience once released from prison.
“Previously, ex-offenders were banned from working in the healthcare system unless they got a waiver,” explained Lilly. “But Sen. Harmon and I sponsored [a bill], which the governor signed, that removed the ban and it improved the healthcare registry. Ex-offenders are now able to re-apply for any professional licenses they had prior to incarceration.”
Gary Smith, an administrator with the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, said his office will continue to advocate for more legislation to address expungement.
“The clerk’s office would like to see legislation that allows for non-violent felony convictions to automatically be expunged after 10 years,” said Smith. “That is something we are pushing for and I urge all of you to write your senators and state representatives to support this effort with new legislation.”
Harmon said that part of the high rate of incarceration of young blacks for drug-related offenses has to do with a troubling racial disparity. Drug use, he said, is often considered a health crisis and not a crime if the offender is white.
“Shortly after I was elected into the General Assembly in the early 2000s, methamphetamine was ripping through southern Illinois and my colleagues called it a health crisis because so many (white) kids were hooked on meth,” recalled Harmon. “When black kids in the city are addicted to drugs, it’s a crime. But when it’s white kids in rural areas, it’s called a health crisis.”
He added that black Chicago also has a health crisis.
“The crisis we are facing in Chicago is drugs and guns. Funny how some parents have empathy for their kids but not kids from our district. There’s overt racism and systematic racism that exist in our world,” added Harmon, who, in addition to representing western suburbs such as Elmwood Park and Oak Park, also represents a small part of Austin.
Neely Smith, an Austin resident, thanked Harmon for his honesty about something she said has been going on for years.
“I didn’t want to go there senator but I’m glad you brought it up,” said Smith. “When it comes to crimes, the justice system treats people differently based on race. A white man can embezzle a million dollars and get a year in jail, but a black person who steals a $700 TV from someone’s house out would probably get six years imprisonment even if it’s his first offense.”
Education was another subject that the state lawmakers discussed with constituents, with Harmon noting that education programs are starving for revenue.
“Human services and higher education are getting killed,” Harmon said. “We have a bizarre way of funding schools. State dollars are not going to the school districts that need them the most while well enough school districts are getting support and that’s not right.”
Unlike teachers working at schools outside Chicago whose pensions are funded by the state, pension payments for Chicago Public Schools teachers come solely from Chicago residents through property taxes. Income taxes paid by Chicago residents, however, are used by the state to fund pensions for all teachers outside Chicago.
Lilly added that the funding formula for schools was created decades ago by the General Assembly and it needs to be changed to treat Chicago teachers equally.
“We have not done a good job managing human services or funding our schools and fixing these two problems is a goal I have this fiscal year,” said Lilly.