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Federal Judge Blasts Illinois For Not Making All Ordered Payments

CHICAGO (AP) -- A federal judge in Chicago scolded Illinois officials Wednesday for not fully complying with her order to pay social service providers in answer to a consent decree.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman broached the subject of holding the state in contempt of court. She ultimately ordered the Illinois state comptroller's office to determine within 48 hours which providers of service to developmentally disabled residents must be funded despite an ongoing budget impasse.

Also in Chicago Wednesday, the state Department of Human Services held a hearing on proposed rules affecting people who receive public assistance.

Coleman even wants a list of what other payments the comptroller has made, suggesting further action if money went out the door for purposes other than necessary consent-decree obligations.

Without a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, there is no state spending authority, but billions of dollars have been obligated. That's because of federal court orders such as the one agreed to in 2011 that covers more than 10,000 developmentally disabled people needing day-to-day help in community homes or larger facilities.

Coleman had earlier ordered the comptroller to pay the community living providers by Aug. 18. But when the money didn't arrive, the providers went back for Wednesday's hearing. An attorney for the comptroller's office, John Stevens, said the problem is cash flow. While tax revenue continues to come in to the state, it's not regular enough to cover all the bills.

Coleman said she understands the state's spending plight, but said the state shouldn't "flout" a court order. She added, "We have human lives at stake."

Comptroller Leslie Munger said in a statement that she will continue paying those helping "our elderly, children and other most vulnerable residents" first.

"In the absence of a balanced budget for this fiscal year, my office will continue to work to meet the payment timelines set by the courts despite the state's limited resources," said the Republican, who also bemoaned "government by court order."

The comptroller's office told Coleman it paid $76 million toward the bill this week. But Barry Taylor, a lawyer for Equip for Equality, an advocacy group involved in the case, said that doesn't cover all the money owed right now.

Coleman ordered the state to report by Friday at noon who's been paid, who hasn't, and when the outstanding debts will be satisfied.

"People with disabilities have been needlessly put at risk of serious harm because of the state's failure to comply with the judge's order," said Barry Taylor, lawyer for Equip for Equality, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly have been unable to agree on a spending plan, although the state's fiscal year is two months old. Democrats say they need more money to cover vital services and propose raising taxes along with cutting spending. Rauner first wants basic changes to the business climate and political atmosphere designed to spur economic growth and restore faith in politicians.

Human Services officials conducted a hearing in Chicago, requested by an advocacy group for the homeless, over rules the Rauner administration has proposed tightening eligibility for welfare, food stamps, child care and Medicaid health coverage.

In a statement, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which represents home health care workers in DHS, says the rules do not provide clients with notice or due process, are complicated and confusing and "place many barriers in front of people who are wrongly denied or terminated from benefits."

Human Services spokeswoman Veronica Vera said the rule changes are required by the federal government.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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