April 3, 2017 / 3:09 PM / 4 months ago

FEATURE-Illinois budget feud deals 'unconscionable' blow to police, fire widows

5 Min Read

CHICAGO, April 3 (Reuters) - Illinois owes a group of women whose police officer and firefighter husbands died in the line of duty more than $351,000 apiece for their losses, but the state’s chronic inability to pass a budget has left all of them unpaid like thousands of state vendors.

The widows’ plight in a state with a $12.7 billion unpaid bill backlog represents yet another frustrating byproduct of lllinois’ 22-month budget stalemate, a span of fiscal ineptitude unmatched by any other U.S. state.

Illinois has limped along without a full operating budget during that time because the state's Democratic-led legislature and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner have clashed over a list of nonbudgetary demands he has insisted be part of any budget deal. All told, seven Illinois women have been waiting as long as a year for their shares of more than $2.7 million in awards and interest owed under the state’s Line of Duty Compensation Act, which mandates one-time payments and burial reimbursements to the families of fallen first responders.

The pending allotments are part of a $45 million pile of unpaid awards through the Illinois Court of Claims, a body that adjudicates litigation directed at the state and approves line-of-duty awards. That overall amount also includes unpaid awards owed to a group of exonerated, wrongfully imprisoned ex-inmates and others who sustained injuries on state roads or in state facilities.

Widows 'Worried About Our Future'

For police widow Susan Maness, the $351,383 award she has waited for since January 2016 could dictate whether she is able to stay long-term in the suburban Chicago “dream home” she and her late husband bought when the couple had two incomes to support mortgage payments.

Her husband, Dwight Maness, 47, a deputy in the McHenry County Sheriff’s Department, was shot in the back and leg in 2014 by a gunman who ambushed him with an AR-15 rapid-fire rifle during a police call to the man's home.

Maness’ injuries left him wheelchair-bound and necessitated multiple surgeries. During an October 2015 physical therapy session, 11 months after being shot, Maness died from a pulmonary embolism the local coroner later linked to his original wounds.

“They’re arguing in Springfield,” Susan Maness said in an interview, referring to the political paralysis in Illinois’ capital. “Everybody is pointing the finger at the other person, and no one wants to take responsibility. But while they’re fighting and pointing fingers, the rest of us are sitting here worried about our future and our homes and how things are going to continue."

Asked how her late husband would react to her wait to be paid, “He’d be horrified all of this is taking place.”

Other widows awaiting awards lost their husbands to crashes, on-the-job cardiac arrests and, in the case of a suburban Chicago firefighter, injuries sustained from falling down an open, unprotected elevator shaft while battling a 2015 building fire.

“I think it’s unconscionable,” said Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, which advocates on behalf of Illinois firefighters. “From my perspective, I’d say this is the result of Governor (Bruce) Rauner’s failure to propose and work with the General Assembly to pass a balanced budget that funds important things like this.”

The Blame Game

An effort to appropriate $5 million to the Court of Claims to pay line-of-duty awards passed the Illinois Senate last May but fizzled in the Illinois House, which tacked on additional budgetary need before the legislation eventually died in January.

State Representative Fred Crespo, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, said Illinois’ inability to give the widows what they are owed is like “adding insult to injury” and blamed the governor for not making their plight a budgetary priority.

“Heaven knows what they’re going through,” Crespo said of the still-grieving women. “I have a hard time listening to the governor saying we care about our firefighters and policemen, and when you have these families who are purely in need, you ignore them.”

Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis told Reuters the governor believes the state should “uphold any promised payments made to the families” of fallen first responders. But she emphasized the payments should be part of a broader budget deal.

That is something the governor has failed to broker since taking office in January 2015. He has butted heads with Democrats over his insistence that his enactment of a budget be conditional on approval of state workers' compensation changes, term limits for legislative leaders and a property-tax freeze, among other things.

“Unfortunately, they cannot be paid until the General Assembly passes a balanced budget,” Demertzis said of the widows in a statement. “Governor Rauner continues to advocate for a solution that balances the budget and ensures payment of those types of benefits.” (Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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