By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – A Senate budget committee on Tuesday began weighing Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s request for a $358 million, or 9 percent increase in general revenue funding for the Department of Human Services, the agency that manages most of the state’s social welfare programs.
DHS Secretary-designate Grace Hou, who served as assistant secretary for DHS during former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration, told the panel the additional money is needed to make up for several years of underfunding in social services.
“Staffing shortages, technical challenges, budget cuts, leadership gaps have created bad outcomes for our agency, for those we serve, for our community partners, and for those who are employed by DHS as well,” Hou told the committee.
“It’s clear that these last several years have eroded our system and impacted those who we are charged to serve,” she added. “I came back to DHS because, like you, I want to be part of the solution and to make sure the essential services we provide are of high quality, accessible and equitable.”
DHS is one of the largest agencies in Illinois state government. It operates on a budget of $3.8 billion in general revenue funds and employs nearly 13,000 people, according to state budget documents. Pritzker’s proposed budget would increase its general revenue funding to just under $4.2 billion.
Hou said much of the additional funding being requested, about $107 million, is needed for salary increases associated with the recent increase in the state’s minimum wage.
It also includes money to fund pay raises, retroactive to April 1 of this year, for the roughly 28,000 home service care givers and 14,000 child care providers – raises that lawmakers authorized last year, but which former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration refused to pay.
Hou also said she is committed to making sure the agency stays in compliance with federal court consent decrees that date back to 2010 and 2011 that call on the state to make greater effort to move people with serious mental illnesses as well as physical and developmental disabilities out of institutional settings and into community-based treatment programs.
In addition, the proposed budget includes $30 million to expand eligibility for state-funded child care services to people with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level – $33,820 for a single parent with one child, or $42,660 for a family of three – an increase from the current income cap of 185 percent of the poverty level.
Bob Brock, chief financial officer for DHS, said expansion would make state-funded child care available to about 17,000 additional families in Illinois.
But Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from Mattoon, questioned why the agency was focusing on expanding eligibility for the program when large numbers of people who are eligible under the 185-percent cap aren’t taking advantage of it.
Righter noted that about $100 million in funding that lawmakers authorized in the current year’s budget is expected to “lapse” because fewer people than expected are enrolling in the child care program.
“Reconcile that with the request for $30 million, above and beyond what was appropriated in (fiscal year) 2019 to expand the program when there is some gap at the lower income levels where people who aren’t, for one reason or another, taking advantage of the program to the extent where we’re actually not going to spend money we appropriated,” Righter said.
Brock said agency officials aren’t sure why more people don’t take advantage of the program, which is partially funded with federal money. He said recent changes in federal law that allows people to stay on the program for 12 months, regardless of changes in their income during that time, will likely result in fewer people leaving the program over the course of the year, thus resulting in higher costs.
Tuesday’s hearing on the DHS budget was just one in a series of hearings delving into the details of Pritzker’s budget proposal. Lawmakers will use information from those hearings to craft a final budget that is expected to be adopted before the end of the regular session in late May.