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Illinois to fund services for disabled kids amid budget feud

CHICAGO — Illinois will begin paying for services to help young children with developmental disabilities and to assist seniors in their homes despite not having a budget in place and warnings from lawmakers that the state is spending billions more than it's taking in.

Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger said Wednesday her office determined the early intervention services, provided to children up to age 3, should have been paid for under a previously issued consent decree that requires some social services be funded. In a separate action, a federal judge ruled a program that aims to help seniors avoid costly nursing home care is covered by a court order requiring state payment.

Munger said she learned last week the program was "slipping through the cracks" and some providers were about to suspend programs. After consulting with attorneys, she decided payments to providers should be processed immediately and are a "relatively low amount" compared with the state's overall budget crisis.

Meanwhile, the Community Care Program, which provides Medicaid-covered in-home services for seniors, must be funded under a decades-old consent decree governing services under Medicaid, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow ruled Wednesday. Providers might not see immediate payment for their work with 89,000 seniors, according to plaintiffs' lawyer Stephanie Altman with the Sargent Shriver National Center or Poverty Law. She did not immediately know how much is owed.

"This is just getting into the queue, but without getting into the queue, you have no hope," Altman said.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and majority Democrats remain far apart on a budget deal for the fiscal year that began July 1. Under state law and various court orders, many bills — such as state payroll, pension payments and some social services — are being paid at a pace that, if it continues throughout the fiscal year, could lead to multibillion-dollar deficit.

Other payments can't be processed because the comptroller's office doesn't have authority to cut the checks.

Munger said her office is being "bombarded" with about 5,000 phone calls per week from providers and vendors hoping they'll be paid or wondering when they might see their money. It's led many social service agencies to lay off staff, and others have closed.

The former businesswoman who was appointed by Rauner to fill the term of the late Judy Baar Topinka again called on legislators and the governor to reach a budget deal. She noted that in 2014, Illinois paid more than $50 million in late fees to providers and vendors — a number that will be significantly higher this year as the backlog of unpaid bills grows.

"This is no way to run this state," she said.

Munger also said that suggestions by some people that she's a "mouthpiece" for Rauner are wrong. Munger is seeking her first full term in 2016, and Democrats already have linked her to Rauner and proposals they say hurt working people.

During a speech at a GOP gathering last month she described herself as Rauner's budgetary "wingman," and frequently advocates for Rauner-backed agenda items such as changing workers' compensation to make it less costly for businesses.

"I'm not saying this because the governor tells me to say this," Munger said. "I say these things because I believe it."

She said she disagrees with Rauner on some issues, such as his cuts to subsidized child care for low-income families that she said were "too deep."

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Associated Press Political Writer John O'Connor in Springfield contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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