PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday March 24th, 2014, 8:28pm

Ahead Of Quinn's Budget Speech, Child Welfare Advocates Warn Against More Cuts To Vital Services

As the expiration of the state's temporary income tax hike approaches and budget cuts loom, family and child welfare advocates say Springfield lawmakers — and candidates running in November's General Election — should spell out what they will do to address health disparities among kids in Illinois.

As the expiration of the state's temporary income tax hike approaches and budget cuts loom, family and child welfare advocates say Springfield lawmakers — and candidates running in November's General Election — should spell out what they will do to address health disparities among kids in Illinois.

Advocates are making that call in light of Voices for Illinois Children's recently released Illinois Kids Count 2014 report, which comes ahead of the governor's budget address on Wednesday. According to the report, low-income and minority children in the state experience disparities in health outcomes, environmental supports and access to care. The report also reveals a disturbing uptick in child abuse and neglect cases in certain parts of the state.

"We want all candidates in all races from both political parties to address the question of the well being of the children of Illinois, and to tell the voters how they are going to maintain the revenue that's needed to protect these programs" that serve at-risk kids and families, said Larry Joseph, director of the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children.

Joseph and others are deeply concerned about the expiration of the state's 2011 temporary income tax increase that is scheduled to phase out starting January 1, which is halfway through the next budget year. The personal income tax is set to rollback from its current 5 percent to 3.75 percent, and the corporate income tax will drop from 7 percent to 5.25 percent. The state is projected to lose $1.5 billion in revenue if the higher tax rates are allowed to sunset come January.

"You’re looking at a $2.4 billion budget shortfall when you combine the lost revenue with the income tax along with the mandated expenditure increases," stressed Jack Kaplan, director of public policy and advocacy at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and United Way of Illinois, both of which work to strengthen health and human services in the state. "That’s $2.4 billion of a hole that you’ve got to either fill or find some ways to cut and further disinvest in those key programs."

Meanwhile, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) introduced a measure in late January that would reduce the corporate tax rate even further to 3.5 percent. After factoring in the state's 2.5 percent personal property replacement tax, Illinois businesses would be taxed at 6 percent under the speaker's plan.

But last week, Madigan also said he wants to raise the state's income tax for people earning more than $1 million annually. All income over $1 million would be taxed by 3 percentage points. The speaker's proposed constitutional amendment is estimated to bring in an extra $1 billion for schools each year. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has signaled that he is open to Madigan's idea, though he is still reviewing the proposal. Millionaire venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, the Republican challenging Quinn in November's General Election, does not support the speaker's plan.

Joseph stressed that unless the General Assembly takes swift action to maintain stable and sustainable state revenue, many vital education, health and human services programs "are going to be in serious, serious jeopardy in the next fiscal year that begins July 1."

"There are basically two things that need to be done," he continued. "We need to extend current income tax rates and avoid having them roll back at the end of 2014, and we need to allow the state to have the option of a different tax structure that improves tax fairness."

Quinn, who is set to unveil his 2015 budget plan Wednesday, has not yet stated what he wants to see happen with the temporary income tax hike. Rauner wants the temporary tax increase to expire as planned at the end of this year.

Kaplan said both Quinn and Rauner are charged with explaining how they intend to address the looming budget hole and sustain the revenue needed to preserve crucial programs, many of which have already been "cut to the bone."

For example, state funding for community mental health services has been slashed by more than 20 percent over the past five years, and "that's exactly the wrong direction for us to be going," Joseph said.

"These same programs that have been hit hard by cuts over the last five years are going to be the ones that are most vulnerable to even deeper cuts in the coming year unless the state addresses the pending revenue collapse,” he said.

Programs not involved in mandatory state spending are currently on track to face potential cuts of a least $2 billion in fiscal year 2015 and at least $3.5 billion in fiscal year 2016, Joseph noted.

Funding for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has already been slashed by 20 percent over the past five years, which Joseph said represents the biggest percentage cut of any major state agency.

"We realize that DCFS in the last six months has not had stable leadership. It’s a troubled agency in many ways, and more cuts would be very damaging," he stressed. "(Additional cuts) would potentially violate multiple federal consent decrees and pose serious risk for the state's most vulnerable kids."

Among the Kids Count report's key findings, children from low-income Illinois families are more likely to be obese than kids from more affluent households. Forty-six percent of low-income children in the state are overweight or obese, compared to 26 percent of all other children.

Additionally, rates of infant mortality and preterm births are higher among blacks than Latinos and whites. In 2010, the infant mortality rate among blacks was 13.6 percent, while the rates were 6.2 percent and 4.9 percent among Latinos and whites, respectively. The percentage of African-American mothers who have low-birthweight babies is also about twice the rate of either whites or Latinos.

Also, only 45 percent of the more than 450,000 Illinois children with special health care needs, like asthma or allergies, receive "coordinated, ongoing, comprehensive care within a medical home, compared with 58 percent of other children," the report found.

Joseph was particularly troubled by trends related to cases of child abuse and neglect in the state.

From 2006 to 2013, the statewide number of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases jumped 14 percent. During that same time period, the collar counties saw a 32 percent increase. And of the state's 50 largest counties, Franklin, Jefferson, Logan, Macon, Marion, Vermilion and Winnebago experienced the highest rates of child abuse and neglect over the past five years, the report showed.

"Explaining this trend isn't easy, because there are a lot of different factors that we know are risk factors for child abuse and neglect, but one of the things we do know is that family economic stress is a risk factor," Joseph noted. "In the collar counties, even though the child poverty rates are substantially lower than the state as a whole, the size of the child poverty population in the collar counties has increased rapidly over the last 10 years."

The statewide child poverty rate in 2012 stood at 21 percent, which is up from less than 17 percent in 2007.

But the counties of Macon, Vermilion and Winnebago in particular have child poverty rates that are much higher than the statewide average at 29.4 percent, 34 percent and 27.5 percent, respectively. These counties are also areas "that have been economically distressed for a long period of time really predating the recession," Joseph explained.  

The Kids Count report did, however, highlight some bright spots for the state, including a downward trend in state-level infant mortality and teen death rates. The state was also commended in the report for its substantial expansion of health insurance coverage for children through Medicaid and related programs.

The share of children in the state without health insurance dropped from 5.6 percent in 2008 to 3.4 percent in 2012, which is the fifth-lowest uninsured rate in the country. At the same time, the state has also significantly narrowed group disparities in child health insurance coverage, the report noted.

"Even during the recession, when we saw lot of people losing their insurance through employer-based policies, even during that time period in Illinois, you saw a continued drop in the number of kids that were uninsured," Kaplan said.  "I think that’s a real testament to the impact that those kind of insurance programs can have on the access and ability of children to get access to health care."

Image: Enviroblog.com

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