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Reeder: Illinois can’t even pay to bury impoverished dead

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – 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, 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.

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 functional since Biblical times – long predating the modern welfare state.

And even this basic government function is failing in Illinois. The state’s funeral and burial program was appropriated $9.58 million for the current fiscal year and yet funeral homes 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 is just fine to make businesses wait.

Of course it’s not just funeral homes and cemeteries that are getting this sort of shabby treatment from our government. It’s also doctors, dentists and pharmacists. Those are just a few of the professions where you’ll find individuals choosing not offer services to Medicaid patients because the state pays them a fraction of their actual costs and reimburses them months late to boot.

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 revenues are at their peak. Never before in the state’s 195-year history has it taken in more money.

And yet the Land of Lincoln is spiraling toward insolvency. Why?

Our leaders have consistently made poor decisions.

Problems with pensions have been kicked down the road for decades. We needed leadership; instead we got the same old politics.

When circumstances called for belt tightening, our lawmakers chose to expand government instead.

The state now has $9 billion in unpaid bills. But earlier this month, the Illinois House 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,” said state Rep. Tom Morrison, R-Palatine. “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 – incarcerating criminals, educating children, maintaining roads – have suffered because of such political indecision.

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 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. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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