Illinois Lawmakers, Governor Agree on Short-Term Ed Budget

(Photo: Joe Lewnard , Daily Herald)

(Photo: Joe Lewnard , Daily Herald)

Illinois state lawmakers have agreed on a plan that would keep state government funded through the next six months, make sure schools open this fall, and provide Chicago Public Schools a measure of financial relief.

The offers and counteroffers forwarded by state Democrats and Republicans were a stark departure from the lawmakers' long-standing history of brief and unproductive meetings. The willingness to negotiate is a sign that neither party wants to be blamed for letting the schools fail or for shutting down the statehouse. The deal promises be the broadest compromise to date of Governor Bruce Rauner's administration.

According to the Chicago Tribune, both sides agree on the need of a short-term spending plan, but Democratic leaders, particularly those from Chicago, have been pushing for more than $650 million in relief funds for Chicago Public Schools. Governor Rauner, a Republican hoping that Democrats' power in the statehouse will be diminished after the November elections, has spent months railing against the plan, accusing the Chicago school district of being horribly mismanaged and overfunded. Without a deal, as reported by Pantagraph, school districts will not reopen in August.

The plan that emerged was a three-part deal to send money to public schools statewide while granting some extra financial assistance for Chicago Public Schools. According to Tina Sfondeles of the Chicago Sun Times, the state would add about $250 million in spending intended for school districts with low-income students; about $100 million of that would go to Chicago Public Schools. Next, lawmakers approved a bill allowing Chicago lawmakers to raise property taxes to help for Chicago schoolteachers' pensions. Finally, the state would start paying $200 million of Chicago teachers' pensions costs starting next year.

For over a year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been urging state legislators to give him the authority to restore a property tax levy that would be used to fund teachers' pensions. The state plan would allow Chicago to collect about $250 million from taxpayers to fund the pensions; state lawmakers will argue that they themselves did not raise property taxes and that they simply voted to give the Chicago City Council the option to do so, which it readily will.

"I feel good," said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, who chairs an appropriations committee. "I think it's a high likelihood that this is real. I've heard support from both Democrats and Republicans on this."

Nevertheless, the plan has invited criticism from both sides of the aisle. Democrats accuse the plan of "kicking the can down the road" and doing nothing to overhaul public employee pensions or adjust how the state doles out money to schools. Similarly, some Republicans have denounced it for levying a veiled property tax on already struggling homeowners and businesses. "I don't favor a property tax increase, and I thought the governor didn't either," says Representative David McSweeney, a Republican from Barrington Hills.

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