Illinois House Democrats on Wednesday advanced a plan to rush more than $815 million to state universities and social service providers, but that money might not arrive anytime soon because Gov. Bruce Rauner criticized the proposal and Senate Democrats still are working on their own plan.
Despite the political hurdles, supporters said they wanted to press ahead, contending that colleges and groups who care for the state’s most vulnerable people are in desperate need of a “lifeline.” A previous stopgap state budget expired at the beginning of the year as Illinois gets closer to going two years without a full spending plan in place.
“I want to do everything that’s in my power to help these people,” said Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat and key budget negotiator. “Is it going to solve the entire budget problem? No. But we have an opportunity to send three quarters of a billion dollars out into the state of Illinois to help people who have been suffering.”
Under the measure, two specialized state accounts set aside for higher education and social service programs would be tapped to help relieve immediate financial pressure. Those funds are separate from the state’s main checking account, and their money comes through a small portion of income tax revenues.
A total of $817 million would be spent from those special funds, with $258 million to be split among social service agencies and $559 million paying for community colleges, scholarships for low-income students and day-to-day operations at state universities.
The move came as Northeastern Illinois University announced it was canceling three days of classes in an effort to save on salary costs as it struggles to make ends meet without financial support from the state. School employees were already asked to take unpaid furlough days during the recent spring break.
Rauner, however, disputed the idea that the Democrats’ plan would help. He posted a video on his Facebook page and said stopgap budgets do little to address long-term issues but “keep universities, community colleges and social service agencies on the verge of collapse with no permanent lines of funding.”
The governor repeated an earlier pledge that he would not sign off on another one-time spending plan unless it also included provisions to “protect taxpayers” such as a permanent property tax freeze.
“Instead of focusing on stopgaps that serve the Springfield insiders, we should be coming together to pass real and lasting solutions to our problems,” Rauner said.
Democrats countered that Rauner has continually “moved the goal post” when it comes to striking a budget agreement. They pointed to a broader, bipartisan budget proposal that remains stalled in the Senate, which Democrats blamed on interference from Rauner. That plan includes a property tax freeze, but it would be temporary.
A House committee approved the stopgap plan on a 10-5 vote Wednesday. Republicans opposed the plan, saying the focus should be on a more comprehensive agreement. They also complained about the timing of the legislation, saying they only had a few hours to review the bill before they were asked to vote. The measure could go before the full House as soon as Thursday.
Even if the House approves, its fate is uncertain in the Senate, where Democrats still are hoping to revive the more sweeping budget measure commonly referred to as the “grand bargain.”
“We passed about half of the grand bargain. I’m still hopeful that we can do that,” said Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. “One of the things we have is an appropriation bill for this fiscal year, the one we’re in right now, that’s not fully funded, but it’s got more funding than something which would be a stopgap. So I would like to focus on what we have pending over here.”
A stopgap budget approved last year provided state school districts with money through the end of June, leaving them relatively untouched by the state’s ongoing budget war. But a coalition of 17 Downstate school districts filed a lawsuit against Rauner and his administration Wednesday, contending the state has failed to provide enough money to deliver a “high quality” education for students.
The suit argues that Illinois’ reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools creates a disparity in poorer communities where districts have less of a tax base to rely on. That makes it harder for students to meet educational standards adopted by the state as class sizes increase and programs are cut.
The school superintendents bringing the lawsuit want the state to put in place a different model to determine how much money the state should funnel to low-income districts in order for students to meet those standards, saying current assessments are “arbitrary and capricious.”
Rauner’s office issued a statement noting that he successfully pushed for an increase in education spending despite Illinois’ larger budget problems. The administration also pointed to a bipartisan commission he put together to study ways to overhaul how education money is distributed in Illinois, though that effort has not produced specific legislation.
“I share their frustration,” Rauner said at an unrelated event. “Our education funding system in Illinois is broken. It’s not clear to me that it’s unconstitutional, I think it probably is constitutional. But it’s not fair, and so we’ve got to change it.”
Chicago Tribune’s Kim Geiger contributed.