Reeder: Deadbeat Illinois can’t even pay to bury its poor
By Scott Reeder firstname.lastname@example.org February 20, 2013 7:54PM
Updated: March 22, 2013 10:37AM
The service was hollow.
The congregants sat before the cheap casket in worn, workingman clothes. The pastor saying the last words kept forgetting the dead man’s name.
I’m sad to say that more than 20 years later even I, the reporter sitting in the back of the chapel, now struggle to remember the fellow’s name.
His life alternated between jail cells and street corners. And at the service he was receiving more respect in death than he had in life.
He was buried by the state.
Funerals for the destitute are especially sad. They usually involve a cheap plywood casket, a rented pastor and burial in a cemetery, or an area of a cemetery, designated for the poor.
Anyone who is a regular reader of this column knows that I believe government should be limited in scope.
But burying the penniless has been a governmental function since biblical times, long predating the modern welfare state.
And even this basic public responsibility is failing in Illinois.
The state’s funeral and burial program was appropriated $9.6 million for the current fiscal year, but funeral directors complain of waiting as long as a year for the state to pay them for their services.
Increasingly, funeral homes and cemeteries are just saying “no” when asked to handle an indigent person’s funeral arrangements.
They operate businesses, after all. Their employees won’t wait a year to get paid. Their suppliers won’t wait a year to receive a check.
But somehow the state seems to think it’s just fine to make businesses wait for payment.
Of course, it’s not just funeral homes and cemeteries that are getting this sort of shabby treatment from our state government.
It’s also doctors, dentists and pharmacists — a few of the professions where you’ll find persons choosing not to offer services to Medicaid patients because the state pays them a fraction of their actual costs and reimburses them months late to boot.
Often those relegated to the Medicaid rolls are left searching for a provider, any provider, who’s willing to offer their family care. More people may have Medicaid cards, but fewer people are choosing to treat those carrying them.
Please keep in mind this is happening at a time when state revenue is at a peak. Never before in the state’s 195-year history has it been taking in more money.
And yet the Land of Lincoln is spiraling toward insolvency. Why?
Mostly because our leaders consistently have made poor decisions.
Problems with financing the state’s pension systems have been kicked down the road for decades. When difficulties needed to be addressed, they were avoided.
Politicians made vows, knowing full well they wouldn’t be in office when those promises came due. We needed leadership. Instead, we kept getting the same old politics.
Now, under new accounting rules, the five state pension funds have a total long-term shortage of roughly $200 billion. Illinois now has $9 billion in unpaid bills.
When circumstances called for belt-tightening, our lawmakers chose to expand government instead. Despite the fiscal mess, the Illinois House this month voted to approve a host of questionable appropriations.
“They voted to spend $115,000 for an Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame in Danville and $30,000 or $40,000 for bicycle racks and even more for a mining monument in southern Illinois — at time we can’t even pay our bills,” state Rep. Tom Morrison (R-Palatine) said. “People think that isn’t much money, but it all adds up. And we shouldn’t be spending money on new programs like this when we can’t even pay our bills.”
Core functions of government — providing public safety, educating children, maintaining infrastructure, aiding the elderly and poor — have suffered because of political indecision and incompetence.
Government can’t be all things. “No” is a healthy word for lawmakers to learn because the more spending balloons in some areas, the less there is to spend in other, perhaps more important, areas.
After all, we live in a state that struggles just to bury its dead.
Don’t we deserve better?
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.