Gregory Mathis is keeping an eye out for what Illinois' politicians do -- or don't do -- in the next couple of weeks as a May 31 deadline to make decisions on next year's budget looms.
But Mathis, a caregiver for the disabled featured in an article by the Daily Herald's Mike Riopell on Monday, sums up how he feels about those politicians very succinctly: "If they respected us, the money would come. It's almost like they devalue (people in need) more than they devalue us."
The numbers back up his claim. And those in charge in Springfield ought to be ashamed, no matter where they stand on the taxes-budgeting fault line.
Mathis, 62, makes $10.70 an hour as a caregiver at Cambridge House in Des Plaines, home to six people with disabilities. He's worked there for 12 years and has received $1.70 an hour in raises during that time. $1.70!
As Riopell explained, Mathis' pay or lack thereof is a reflection of state funding not making its way to the caregivers doing such important work. Illinois pays agencies like Mathis' employer, Avenues to Independence, for the work their staffs do. The amount spent on the program across the state, however, hasn't increased since 2007.
And this kind of funding is again caught up in the partisan fight over taxes and spending this year. Democrats want to extend a 2011 income tax hike so that additional revenue keeps coming in. Republicans argue the so-called temporary tax increase should be just that, temporary. Lower tax rates, they say, will stimulate the economy and lead to more money coming into the state.
Meanwhile, people like Mathis are caught in the middle. Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago says pay raises for caregivers are part of the budget discussions. But she adds they will cease to be discussed without renewing the tax increase.
"Without it, we can't do anything," she said.
Yet, Republicans rightly point out that no raises were granted in the three years since taxes were raised.
It's a matter of setting priorities, and surely the priorities ought to have been set well before the 2011 tax increase so that street-level caregivers of the most vulnerable among us could be paid a respectable wage.
Advocates are trying to get a $3-per-hour raise over the next several years for direct support professionals like Mathis. Gov. Pat Quinn is calling for a $30 million bump in the proposed budget, enough for a $1-an-hour raise starting Jan. 1, 2015.
While it's good to recognize the need for better pay, that should not be contingent on increasing taxes. It should be a reflection of the important care these people give every day to some of the state's most needy citizens.