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Illinoisans brace for federal cuts, furloughs

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 7:53 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 12:27 p.m. CST

CHICAGO — A disabled woman in Crescent City fears losing her transportation. A safety chief at Scott Air Force Base already has canceled a vacation. A Chicago court clerk worries he'll have to lock the doors of his federal courthouse a full day a week.

Uncertainty abounds about what could happen in Illinois if federal lawmakers in Washington don't do something to avert automatic budget cuts set to kick in Friday.

The White House has warned of draconian measures if the cuts take effect; critics say President Barack Obama's administration is using sky-is-falling scare tactics to score political points against Republican lawmakers. Some of the cuts would be mere fractions of total agency budgets.

Gov. Pat Quinn's aides say they are concerned but hopeful for a deal in Washington. The financially strapped state has little ability to fill the gaps. So state officials and social service agencies are bracing for what's to come, and people already are making contingency plans and adjustments in their lives amid genuine anxiety.

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MILITARY

One of the hardest hit by the budget cuts could be the Scott Air Force Base, an installation just east of St. Louis that's the region's third-biggest employer with 13,000 employees.

The cuts could mean 4,500 of the site's 5,000 civilian workers must take 22 days of unpaid furloughs through the end of the fiscal year, amounting to a 20-percent pay cut, spokeswoman Karen Petitt said.

Marilee Reuter is among those civilian workers, along with her husband, a fellow retired Air Force veteran who helps plan midair refueling missions. A deputy safety chief, Reuter said she and her husband already scuttled a planned vacation to Hawaii. Dining out and home improvement "all are going to be put on hold," and the couple with a mortgage and a car payment may have to dip into savings and abandon investing in their 401(k) retirement accounts.

"You make cuts where you can," said Reuter, 51.

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JUSTICE AND LAW ENFORCEMENT

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago is contemplating closing its doors one workday every week, explained Tom Bruton, the court's clerk. If there's no fix for months, it may have to stop holding civil trials.

The yearly operating budget of the court — one of the nation's busiest — is around $16 million. Bruton didn't have exact figures for the looming shortfall but said it could be in the millions of dollars.

The cuts also would force around 1,000 employees working out of the FBI's Chicago office to take 14 unpaid furlough days, including agents working current investigations, said office spokeswoman Joan Hyde.

In an email, Hyde said the federal budget cuts "would undoubtedly impact (the Chicago FBI's task forces') valuable work in areas such as terrorism, violent crimes, crimes against children and white collar crimes."

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SOCIAL SERVICES

Carol Beaney, 57, a disabled resident from Crescent City, arranges a ride in a van equipped with a lift for her power wheelchair whenever she needs to go to a doctor's appointment. The van is part of the special medical services provided by a nonprofit rural transit service called SHOW BUS, and the nonprofit plans to eliminate special medical services if the budget cuts come to pass.

The service helps Beaney live more independently in her own home. Losing transportation could hasten a move to a nursing home or other institution for people like her.

"I sincerely hope (the White House and Congress) are never in my position and have to listen to their future being debated like that," she said.

Laura Dick, the director of SHOW BUS, which serves seven Illinois counties, said county governments could not make up the shortfall in funding.

"I'm praying a lot," she said.

In Chicago, Lutheran Social Services Illinois is bracing for a $53,500 reduction in federal funding for mental health and substance abuse services, said Tim Sheehan, the nonprofit's executive director of behavioral health services. That means two case managers would lose their jobs, Sheehan said, and possibly the closing one of the agency's six "recovery homes" for sober alcoholics and drug-free addicts trying to re-enter the workforce.

Thousands of senior citizens could face losing their free, taxpayer-subsidized meals. Cuts could cost the state's senior nutrition program $764,000 over the next year, amounting to the equivalent of a quarter million meals served at senior centers and 670,000 home-delivered ones, said Chris Fulton of the Area Agency on Aging of Southwestern Illinois. That would affect roughly 10,000 people.

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EDUCATION

Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund in Chicago, said her nonprofit is trying to prepare for what the White House says would be the elimination of Head Start and Early Head Start services for about 2,700 Illinois children. The programs help low-income children from birth to age 5 get ready to enter school.

Rauner said her group, which serves 1,341 children through partnership with seven agencies, hasn't received any guidance from the government as to how much its funding is likely to be reduced.

"It's not just cold-hearted. It's stupid economic policy," Rauner said.

Research has shown that kids who have access to Head Start services are better students and are more likely to stay in school and go on to be productive adults. So, she argued, shortchanging the investment in Head Start now could have long-term implications.

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HIGHER EDUCATION

The White House indicated earlier this week that money for research, financial aid and work-study programs would be cut, but there's head-scratching about just what that means.

"Unfortunately we're kind of in the dark," said Jon Pyatt, the University of Illinois' director of federal relations, said while working on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Potentially at stake at the University of Illinois' three campuses is about $42.8 million, $33 million of which finances research over a wide range of subjects, spokesman Tom Hardy said. But the money represents less than 1 percent of the university's $5.4 billion operating budget.

Northern Illinois University could see a loss of about $2.7 million in research funding and $85,000 in financial aid and work-study funding, spokesman Paul Palian said. Officials at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston say they stand to lose only about $450,000, about 8 percent of the $5.6 million in federal money the school receives, spokeswoman Vicki Woodard said.

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NATIONAL PARKS

In Springfield, hours could be curtailed at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, affecting as many as 117,000 visitors a year at the 42-year-old national park. Last year it drew roughly 300,000.

Mike Reynolds, director of the National Park Service's Midwest region, says he is scrambling to grapple with the potential of losing the funds.

"I think the American people are watching this transpiring, and they want reduced government spending. I get that," Reynolds added. "But I don't think they realize how this affects their lives."

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Associated Press writers Michael Tarm and Sara Burnett in Chicago and David Mercer in Champaign contributed to this report.

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