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Lawmakers question Pritzker’s plan for new early childhood agency

Cost of consolidating programs remains largely unknown

By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
phancock@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to consolidate the state’s early childhood programs into one new cabinet-level agency ran into tough questions this week during a House budget committee hearing. The plan, which Pritzker first announced in October and which he included in his budget address in February, would consolidate a host of programs and services currently run by three different agencies under one roof.

     That would include such things as child care subsidies for low-income families currently housed in the Department of Human Services; preschool block grants administered by the State Board of Education; and the licensing of day care centers, which is currently done by the Department of Children and Family Services. Pritzker is seeking $13.1 million in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year to establish a new Department of Early Childhood, but that would only cover some initial start-up costs, such as hiring executive staff, buying new computers and software licenses. It would also include the cost of surveying parents, teachers, service providers and other stakeholders about what they want from a new agency and how they would like to see it operate.

     Ann Whalen, the person Pritzker named in October to oversee the transition, told committee members Tuesday the administration expects it will be two full years before the new agency will be ready to take over any of the programs being transferred to it. “We really do see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the system easier, fairer and more cohesive,” she said. “We believe that the budget request reflects the capacity we need to do this work.”

     Most Democrats on the committee seemed receptive to the idea of putting all early childhood programs under one roof. “Conceptually, I support this,” said Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur. “I can see where early childhood is sort of spread all over the board.” However, Scherer said she was concerned about whether the creation of a new agency would result in an overall net increase in administrative costs for the state and, if so, where that additional money would come from. “At the end of the day, it all comes out of tax revenue from taxpayers,” she said. “So every dollar we spend on this, and I just need everyone to be aware of this, is a dollar we don’t have to spend, potentially, on students, and teacher salaries, because it’s money that we’re spending for administration and location of a new agency, basically.”

     Whalen said much of the money the new agency would spend will be federal dollars that currently flow to other agencies. On multiple occasions, though, she declined to speculate about what the net cost would be to the state and whether the overall administrative costs, including new office spaces, would be more or less than what the state is spending now. “I don’t want to put out a number that gets in front of the process,” she said. “I don’t want to say we’re going to have this exact org chart, or this exact look at programs and services, because I don’t want to jump to conclusions about what parents and providers say they want out of the system.”

     Republicans on the panel were more skeptical about the proposal. “Why shouldn’t we be extremely concerned that we are statutorily creating an entire government agency when you’re telling us right now that we really don’t have any idea what it’s going to cost?” asked Rep. Blaine Wilhour, of Beecher City, the Republican spokesperson on the panel. “Wouldn’t it be more prudent to go through this two-year study phase and not create an entire government agency that we have no idea what it’s going to cost?”

     However, Whalen said the idea of forming a single agency for early childhood services grew out of years of study and planning in Illinois, as well as the experience of other states. “We firmly believe that it’s important to begin the process of standing up this new agency, because when we have spoken to other states, they have said, ‘we tried to do it all at once,’ or ‘we did not take enough time to listen,’ or ‘we did not stand up a new agency and have the opportunity to plan before we transition the programs over, and boy do we wish we had done that differently,’” she said.

     The committee took no action on the budget request. That will be part of a final spending package that lawmakers will negotiate at the end of the spring session, which is scheduled to last through the month of May. The legislation to create a new agency is contained in two bills, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5451, both of which are still pending in their respective chambers.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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