DECATUR — Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza greeted the news of higher budget projections for the coming fiscal year with a note of warning familiar to anyone who has balanced a checkbook.
"Estimates do not equal actual dollars," she said. "I'm always cautiously optimistic."
Mendoza, whose duties involve managing the state's fiscal accounts and paying its bills, was reacting to news that the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability is projecting stronger revenues for the current and next fiscal years. The $50.4 billion estimate is $465 million more than the revenues that Gov. J.B. Pritzker included in his proposed budget, unveiled to lawmakers last month.
"I think it’s great news, but we can’t spend money we don’t have yet," Mendoza said during an unrelated appearance in Decatur on Tuesday. "... If those revenue estimates do turn out to be correct, then I would suggest that the first thing we do, rather than to look to spend new revenue dollars, is to pay down existing debts, specifically our unfunded pension obligations.”
The report by the commission — made up of lawmakers from both parties and chambers of the General Assembly, and staffed by economic analysts — also noted the state economy could expect to see an economic slowdown within the next few fiscal years.
“Save money when we can afford to," Mendoza said. "Every day that is a good day for us should be a day that we start and end that day by saving money in the rainy day (fund) and putting more towards pension stabilization. That is the best protection we can have going into any economic downturn.
Currently, the state could cover 11 days worth of bills out of its rainy day fund, she said.
Mendoza's remarks came as part of a visit to Decatur, where she toured Richland Community College, Crossing Healthcare and the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center.
“As comptroller, it is important for me to see these things because these programs are where we invest our state taxpayer dollars,” Mendoza said, explaining the reason for her visit. “It’s not enough to just write the checks and send them out the door. I want to be able to talk to taxpayers in Illinois about all the great work that is happening with their hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”
At Richland, she spoke with college leaders about their EnRich program, a 10-week training program that serves those with barriers to accessing and staying employed. It combines technical training with what its leaders describe as essential skills, such as combating past trauma that could impede workplace advancement.
“(The program) allows people not just to get a job, but to stay in the job, grow in the job and become something magnificent,” said the Rev. Courtney Carson, vice president of external affairs for EnRich. “It’s more than just a job training program; it’s allowing people to become better husbands and wives and sons and daughters.”
According to Carson, the program has already served over more than 1,500 students. Of those, 90% are actively-employed, with 82% coming from a historically-marginalized population and 55% having a past criminal record.
Carson knows something about turning lives around. As a teenager, he was one of the so-called "Decatur Seven" high school students whose expulsion after a fight at a football game in 1999 attracted national attention. He said his background is part of why he is so passionate about serving students who face barriers from their past.
“I was the kid in the seat who needed that help,” Carson said. “I was the kid that needed a hug. I needed someone to believe in me. I needed someone to be the affirmation for me and for someone to say ‘Hey, you can make it. You can do it. You are somebody.’ Reverend Jesse Jackson was that for me and I plan to do that for someone else.”
Part of the technical skills offered include time in the college’s nursing simulation lab, which is equipped with multiple interactive robotic mannequins.
“This is a good place to come and learn and learn hands-on," said Dr. Richard Harmon, the college's health nursing simulation coordinator. “They get to practice, like learning how to do a head-to-toe assessment and other things.”
Some of the other programs offered are commercial driver’s license and transportation, workforce development and a minority mentor program.
“The EnRich program fosters full support of any student that’s coming through that program,” said Gina Taylor, director of the essential skills program. “Whether it’s healthcare, welding, construction trades, it just gives them that full experience of having support.”
Once students are accepted into the program, they are given a stipend and support with educational fees.
“That allows our community to be able to further their education, to be able to sustain and take care of their families and just make them a whole person,” Taylor said, adding that the community also benefits from students learning tangible job skills.
“We’re seeing really wonderful, innovative, creative things happening in rural Illinois, and Decatur is kind of like the home-ground for where this is happening,” Mendoza said.
The program is built on partnerships with local community organizations such as Decatur Memorial Hospital and helps fill gaps within the labor sector, officials said.
“It’s an important partnership and a national model,” said Mark Denzler, Decatur native and president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association. “EnRich teaches necessary life skills, which allow people to be successful in their careers whether manufacturing, nursing, transportation or another field.”
Richland President Cristobal Valdez serves on the board of the IMA and the college is a member of the organization.
Mendoza also toured Crossing Healthcare, a nonprofit federally-qualified health center that provides outpatient primary care, and spoke with local leaders about their needs in supporting residents.
She has made it clear that her priorities as comptroller include ensuring residents on Medicaid are not denied access to care and that providers are able to receive proper payment for care provided.
“There are key categories that I, as comptroller, prioritize right off the bat. These are folks who get paid 24 to 48 hours from me receiving the invoice from the respective agency,” Mendoza said. “We’re talking about any adult or child that has a disability and needs care for that, they’re at the top of the list. Nursing homes, hospice cares, hospitals, especially safety net hospitals.”
Illinois has 40 safety net hospitals, meaning 19.1% of hospitals in the state are dependent on government funding to maintain operation.
Mendoza also toured the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center and spoke to a class of cadets regarding legislation she is encouraging that would provide duty disability pension funds to police officers who contracted COVID-19 while on the job. She said her brother became permanently disabled after having the disease and was denied those benefits by the Chicago Police Pension Board.
Identical versions of the legislation have been proposed in both the House and Senate. Mendoza will testify in favor of the legislation before lawmakers at the Capitol on Thursday.
Mendoza left her full day in Decatur feeling positively about the state's trajectory.
“I really feel like everyone should come to Decatur and see what I saw today,” Mendoza said. “This is amazing.”