Candidates in many political races this fall have argued that social issues must take a back seat to the severity of the state or nation's financial woes.
But Democratic state Rep. Michelle Mussman and her Republican challenger John Lawson say the issue of state funding for special-needs children and adults plays too important a role in society to be deferred.
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"It's extremely important and needs to be part of the conversation right now," Mussman said. "It needs to be part of the budget."
While many different points of view exist on details of various bills, Mussman said she's generally felt during her two years in office that most of her colleagues agree on the importance of this aspect of human services.
She added that providing human services is the philosophical basis of why the state exists at all. But she said she understands that when people ask for smaller government they're asking for a reduction of those abusing or taking advantage of the system without need.
"If you're legitimately in need, we're happy to help you," she said.
The quality of programs in Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 has made House District 56 attractive to families with special-needs children, Mussman said. But with a steady rise in the number of cases overall, not many people can claim to be unaffected by the issue, she added.
"More and more people are affected in some way. These are your friends and these are your neighbors," Mussman said. "I don't see this as a Democratic or Republican issue. It's simply fulfilling the needs of our families."
Whether a growing population of special-needs adults will be able to contribute to society or be left dependent is a big question that society must answer, she said.
Lawson, meanwhile, gives Mussman credit for the listening she's done during her term, but says more is needed.
"She hasn't proposed anything," Lawson said. "You can talk and meet, talk and meet, but then you have to do something."
Lawson said both his personal experience as the father of a special-needs son and his professional experience as a 27-year member of the Roselle Police Department have made the importance of the issue clear to him.
Without programs that proactively meet the needs of the special-needs population, the general population will inevitably feel a negative impact that forces police officers to get involved, he said.
"They will eventually be the state's problem," Lawson said of special-needs children not properly cared for. "You need to spend the money now -- in school and in the transitional program."
He said more community living facilities are needed for special-needs adults who can live semi-independently -- and a way to reduce the waiting lists for facilities for the more severely disabled.
Lawson said some special-needs facilities are state-funded and some are run by not-for-profits, but all need the support to fulfill society's needs.
He added that he would propose legislation offering tax incentives to employers who hire special-needs adults for whatever jobs they are capable of handling.
"An autistic child could be a whiz on the computer," he suggested.
While the degree of financial help the state can provide its special-needs population does depend on solving its budget problems, Lawson said he doesn't believe this should take as long as some believe. He points to Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle's success in bringing down the costs and salaries in each of the county's departments to a more reasonable level.
"If you can do it in Cook County, you can do it anywhere," he said.
The 56th District includes Schaumburg and portions of Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Bartlett, Hanover Park, Palatine, Rolling Meadows and Roselle.
• To see the new boundaries of House District 56 and other legislative and congressional districts, visit http://gis.elections.il.gov/map_viewer/default.aspx