For the last seven or so years, Jeannie Mullner has been taking a disability van from her nursing home on the far north side to the Anixter Center, a social-service facility in Lincoln Park. There she and a few hundred other disabled people–some mentally disabled, others physically injured or blind, like Mullner–spend their days in classes, workshops, and discussion groups, or going on outings.

Now Governor Ryan has proposed budget cuts that would force the center to end some of its activities. If the state legislature goes along with the cuts, at least 100 Anixter clients, including Mullner, will no longer have a program to attend.

“I can’t imagine having to sit home all day–I like to get out,” says Mullner. “We’re pawns. We’re being pushed around the chessboard.”

Ryan’s budget proposal caught the Anixter staff and clients by surprise–they figured Anixter wasn’t vulnerable to budgeting politics. After all, the center’s been around since 1919, providing the sort of not-for-profit assistance most politicians champion. Its programs range from arts and crafts to job training to counseling for addiction, depression, and other illnesses, and it’s grown into one of the larger not-for-profit social-service providers in the state, with a budget of $27 million, a staff of 470, and roughly 4,000 city and suburban clients.

On any given day at the main facility, a converted factory at 2032 N. Clybourn, vans constantly drop off or pick up clients. The staff’s social workers preach an invigorating ideology of self-help and enterprise. “We get out,” says Carlotta Rivera, an Anixter client. “We go shopping. We see movies or go out to eat or go to a baseball game. We have travel groups. We go to Springfield, Milwaukee, and the Wisconsin Dells.”

The center also publishes a newsletter with updates on activities, news blurbs, and obituaries–nearly all written by Ron Cluck, who uses a wheelchair and communicates through a computerized voice box, the result of an accident more than 20 years ago. The center frequently brings in elected officials such as Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood and state senator Ricky Hendon for roundtable discussions with clients and staff.

“Nobody’s against us,” says Stuart Ferst, Anixter’s president. “How can you be against us? We’re mom and apple pie.”

Though the cuts caught them by surprise, Ferst and others say they should have seen them coming. “The 9/11 attacks took a toll,” he says. “Everyone can see that. Spending and, accordingly, tax revenues fell in the wake of those attacks.”

Ferst also suspects the downturn exposed the inadequacies of the state’s budget projections. “I think we overestimated revenues because we’d been riding the wave of prosperity,” he says. “We’re not alone in this–there are 40 other states going through the same thing. Everybody projected income that never happened.”

Ryan broke the bad news in his state-of-the-state speech in February. The Illinois government, he said, was more than a billion dollars in the red. He proposed across-the-board cuts unless the legislators raised taxes–unlikely in an election year.

Just why Ryan dumped the matter on the legislature instead of taking charge is anyone’s guess (his spokesman didn’t return calls for comment). After all, he isn’t running for reelection and could safely take the hit for doing “the right thing,” as Ferst puts it, by raising taxes. There are politically safe taxes he could raise, such as those on cigarettes or gambling. “There is even a rainy-day fund which the governor can tap,” says Ferst. “If it’s not raining now I don’t know when it’s raining.”

Whatever the reason, the proposed cuts would leave Anixter and many other social-service agencies facing a gaping budget hole. “The state told us that as of July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, we’re going to lose $2.5 million of our $18 million we get from the state,” says Ferst. “That’s about 15 percent. That’s pretty devastating.”

State regulatory changes will cut Anixter’s budget further. “The state says they will only subsidize programs for clients in our disabilities day program who get 50 percent matching federal funds,” says Ferst. “In laymen’s terms, [the feds] distinguish between developmentally disabled human beings, who have mental retardation or severe cerebral palsy or whose disabilities started before the age of 21, and people with mental illness as a result of traumatic brain injuries. The point is that all of our clients need service. To limit funding to only those who meet federal criteria is cruel.”

Moreover, the state cuts would have a ripple effect, ensuring other cuts. For instance, the state requires nursing-home residents receiving a state housing allowance to be enrolled in a daily activity program such as one of those offered at Anixter. Yet if those residents no longer have a program to enroll in, the state won’t maintain their allowance. “It’s a catch-22–you can’t have one program without the other,” says Amy Knowles, an Anixter staffer. “The state says they have to be in a daily program to get their subsidies–but they’re cutting the programs. What do they want us to do?”

Frustrated, Anixter staff gathered about 15 clients in mid-March and took them to the Thompson Center to testify at a legislative budget hearing chaired by state representative Monique Davis. “There wasn’t enough room for all the speakers who came to testify,” says Knowles. “They booked a room for 200 people, and about 700 or so showed up. They completely underestimated the turnout.”

After a few minutes of uncertainty–with guards telling protesters they had to go home, and protesters telling the guards they had a right to be heard–Davis had the meeting moved to a larger room. That caused a logistical nightmare, as all those people, many in wheelchairs, suddenly pushed for the elevators.

“It was unreal,” says Knowles. “The first room was on the 16th floor. Then they moved everyone to the first floor. Only there were so many people we could barely get on the elevators. We wound up taking a freight elevator. When we got off all we could see was wall-to-wall people. The elevators kept spewing out all different people–people with walkers, people in wheelchairs, people with children. This was our one chance to voice opposition to the cuts.”

Once they’d settled into the larger room, the hearing got started. “It went on forever, because everyone wanted to speak,” says Knowles. “There was one man who got up to complain, ‘We have to cut eight clients–can you tell me who to cut?’ There was a group of personal-care assistants. They had T-shirts and caps–they were really organized. There were people from hospitals and nursing homes. It was wild.”

Finally at 3:45, almost six hours after the Anixter group arrived, Cluck got his chance to testify. He kept it short. “Governor Ryan’s proposed budget cuts will seriously jeopardize [Anixter’s] ability to provide services for persons with disabilities,” he said. “In fact, for the first time in their existence, they will have to turn people with disabilities away.”

It was, says Mullner, a dramatic moment as Cluck typed out his message, which came through his computer voice box. But it may have been lost in the tumult of the day.

“I don’t know what they heard or what they listened to,” says Mullner. “Some of the legislators, particularly the chair [Davis], were very abrupt. She was sort of standoffish–snobbish, you might say. I guess I can’t blame her. The meeting just dragged on.”

It’s unclear what will come of all the testimony. The hearing got very little coverage in the mainstream media, and the legislators made no promises. According to Knowles and Mullner, they hardly seemed sympathetic.

“Everyone says the right things–they all love us–but no one makes any guarantees,” says Ferst. “We’ve even talked to [gubernatorial candidates] Jim Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. They say it’s awful, it shouldn’t happen. You talk to any legislator and they say the same thing. But when you ask them what they’re going to do about it they get quiet–because they would have to raise taxes, and no one wants to talk about that.”

Most legislators, even committee chairs such as Davis, are relatively powerless. “The way it works is that the legislators generally respond to only four people,” Ferst explains. “[House speaker] Mike Madigan, [senate president] Pate Philip, [senate minority leader] Emil Jones, and [house minority leader] Lee Daniels.”

Anixter’s staff and clients hope that eventually those four leaders will disappear into the back rooms of the statehouse and emerge with a tax hike that keeps programs like Anixter’s going. In the meantime, the staff and clients say they’ll keep up the pressure.

“I think there’s a relatively painless solution to this crisis–by raising cigarette taxes or gambling taxes,” says Ferst. “Whether they do it is another thing. As they see it, they have an electorate that votes people out of office if they raise taxes, even though everyone knows you need to have revenues to run important programs. They say that in a democracy you get the government that you deserve. Well, we’ve got the government we deserve.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.