State budget, higher ed battles roll on

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By Mark Fitton

Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — Democratic lawmakers on Thursday passed a measure they said will help university students and community colleges despite the lack of a budget, but Republicans called the bill an unfunded hoax on taxpayers.

Senate Bill 2043, as amended in the House, authorizes a total of about $721 million for higher education, including about $397 million for individual student awards (MAP grants) paid to colleges and universities, and roughly $274.5 million to bolster community college operations.

It also includes money for adult education and literacy programs, technical and vocational education and performance-based awards to local education providers.

House sponsor Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, said the bill doesn’t address the entire lack of a budget for higher education, but it was sculpted to address some of the most pressing needs and in amounts previously discussed with the GOP before budget talks broke down.

Republicans generally gave Burke a nod for good intent but argued that without a funding source, the legislation would simply be adding to a stack of state unpaid bills already $7 billion deep. And, they said, it would effectively put students and colleges in competition with social service recipients each day as the state comptroller decides which bills to pay and which to put back on the “hold” pile.

“This bill is not right,” House GOP Leader Jim Durkin said during the debate. “People are going to send the press releases out saying that we’ve solved MAP and we’ve solved community college funding, (but) there’s no revenue to pay for this. You shouldn’t be doing this.”

Burke answered that the General Assembly has sat on its hands too long as higher education has gone unfunded for the 2015-16 school year. And, she said, Democrats are still open to working out a larger solution.

“I view this as a beginning, not the end of the discussion,” she said.

In the Senate, Deputy GOP Leader Matt Murphy called the bill “a hollow, empty gesture.”

He said it amounts to telling constituents, “Hey, we passed this bill for $720 million for you — just don’t look under the hood and realize we actually don’t have $720 million.”

Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, answered that it was time for the Senate to lead on the issue.  

“If nothing else, let this be the start of real action being taken in this chamber,” he said.

But Republicans in both chambers howled, saying Democrats were ignoring a GOP initiative that would not only authorize higher education funding, but pay for it.

GOP lawmakers advocated for legislation (HB 4530 and SB 2349) they say would appropriate $1.6 billion dollars for all programs included in SB 2043 and for Illinois’ public universities.

That legislation is tied to another pair of matching bills (HB 4521 and SB 2338) that would grant the governor authority to respond to an unbalanced budget by reallocating funds and reducing spending in various ways.

Democrats were far from keen on the plan.

Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, a member of Democratic leadership, tore into the GOP plan, saying Gov. Bruce Rauner was seeking “unprecedented powers to move money around in the state budget, to transfer any amount he wants to one place or another, to modify any payment or rates to providers.”

The GOP’s bills, Lang argued, would give Rauner “imperial powers to shift dollars anywhere he wants, anytime he wants, on any whim he has for any reason whatsoever.”

Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, fired back, saying the GOP measures were real solutions and would do more for higher education and do it faster than the Democrats’ bill.

Sandack argued Democratic leadership was continuing to provide “sham and artifice,” or the illusion of solving a problem but actually only providing political cover. He contended the Democratic bill couldn’t provide a dollar for MAP grants or community colleges without “stiffing another social service provider or stiffing another unit of government.”

The bill cleared the House on largely party-line votes of 67 to 42 in the House and 36 to 12 in the Senate.

Republican legislators predicted a veto by Rauner, R-Winnetka, and the governor’s budget office indicated it would recommend he veto Senate Bill 2043.

Illinois is in the seventh month of fiscal year 2016 without a budget.

Meanwhile, the state is said to be spending on 90 percent of its annual obligations as it funds primary and secondary education and meets expenses incurred by way of debt service, continuing appropriations and court decrees. That spending — which does not include higher education nor many human services — is said to be running at a clip that would put Illinois $5 billion or more in the red for fiscal 2016 if nothing changes.

The General Assembly next returns to Springfield on Feb. 10.

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