By Lisa Bertagnoli

At her book club and among her church friends, Mary Patton senses anger over the way elected officials are handling the state’s budget crisis. About $130 billion in unfunded public pension obligations looms, and the state’s budget has a $1.2 billion deficit.

Patton, 82, a former teacher and Peoria County circuit clerk, is a longtime AARP Illinois advocacy volunteer. “We have worked on many of these issues for more than 20 years,” she said. “We fight the same fights over and over again.”

Longtime AARP volunteer Mary Patton says the state budget crisis affects everyone.

The nonprofit Chicago Commons, based in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood, delayed plans to expand services because of the budget crisis. The organization devotes 40 percent of its $30 million annual budget to senior services, including in-home care and adult day care.

During the budget stalemate, from July 1, 2015, until Aug. 31, 2017, the state owed Chicago Commons $6 million, according to CEO Edgar Ramirez. The bill has since been paid, but apprehension lingers.

Ramirez said the group is always looking for new ways to serve people. But “it gives us pause in the sense of, ‘Should we or should we not?’—because of the instability downstate,” Ramirez said.

Like Ramirez, Illinois residents are weary of the budget mess. Two-thirds of voters 25 and older rate their anger over the state’s financial situation as a 4 or 5, with 5 meaning “extremely angry,” according to an AARP Illinois poll released in October. And 84 percent agree that the governor and legislature should make the budget situation the top priority this year.

Enough is Enough

Ryan Gruenenfelder, AARP Illinois advocacy and outreach director, said the organization wants politicians to put aside their differences and devise solutions that are fair for everyone. AARP’s Enough is Enough campaign focuses on budget solutions through citizen involvement and advocacy.

A majority of voters, according to the AARP poll, said the state should cut spending, including grants to local governments. But the poll also shows that many hard choices needed to address the budget crisis are unpopular.

Voters oppose many of the ideas for more taxes and spending cuts.

The legislative session starts this month. After the budget, other AARP priorities include:

Nursing home issues Gruenenfelder cited a Chicago Tribune/Kaiser Health News investigation that revealed staffing levels at 78 percent of Chicago-area nursing facilities are below the national average. When there are fewer employees, patients don’t get the attention they need, and that can result in the life-threatening infection sepsis.
AARP wants reforms such as quality-of-care standards and infection-control processes.

Utility costs Chicago residents pay 80 percent more for natural gas than suburbanites. Why? Because of cost overruns for the Peoples Gas main replacement, according to a 2015 audit ordered by the Illinois Commerce Commission. AARP supports hearings to investigate the charges for natural-gas bills in the city.

Voters can help by going to EnoughIsEnough.aarp.org or by contacting their state legislators and the governor’s office to press for a balanced budget, Gruenenfelder said.

Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago.