Mayors'frustration grows over budget impasse

  • Written by Joe Boyle

The budget impasse in Springfield has the Southwest Conference of Mayors taking a look at their options.

Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett, who serves as president of the Southwest Conference of Mayors, said that he is gratified that they are receiving their motor fuel tax funds, 911 funding and video gaming revenue. Gov. Rauner signed a bill in December that allowed for these funds to be distributed to municipalities throughout the state, which the mayors argued should never have been part of the budget deadlock.

However, while Bennett is pleased that those funds are coming, he sees mothing on the horizon for an end to the budget stalemate. Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd) and state Sen. John Cullerton (D-6th), the majority leader of the Senate, are still far apart on budget talks.

“We got the impression from Mr. Cullerton that nothing is going to happen,” said a concerned Bennett during the Southwest Conference of Mayors meeting on Jan. 27 at the Chicago Ridge Village Hall. “It is the suburban mayors who balance the budget as we always do. Perhaps they can learn something from us.”

The meeting began with an update from Joan Knox, who serves at the executive director of External and Legislative Affairs at St. Xavier University. Knox, who also serves as a Palos Hills alderman, said the school is fine at this point and read off a series of accomplishments at the Catholic university.

But Knox did mention the importance of receiving Monetary Award Program funds, or MAP. Knox said that it would be beneficial if MAP funds and other education programs could be restored by the legislators in Springfield.

Knox and Bennett both applauded the efforts of state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th), who is the chief sponsor of a bill that would restore MAP and other education programs. Burke’s bill has passed through the House and Senate as of last Thursday.

Burke is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 2043. The measure increases funding for MAP grants by more than $32 million compared to fiscal year 2015. Across the state, approximately 130,000 students utilize the MAP Grant program to seek higher education. Students at St. Xavier University were eligible to receive nearly $7 million in MAP grants while those studying at Moraine Valley Community College should have received $2.4 million.

The bill now rests on the governor’s desk. Knox and other college and university officials are hoping that he signs the bill.

“We are doing alright, we are in good shape” said Knox. “If you haven’t seen St. Xavier lately, then you haven’t seen St. Xavier. We have a lot to offer. A lot of people don’t realize that more students receive a private school education than at public schools. It is our hope that the assembly realizes that and the governor signs the bill for MAP and other education funds.”

While St. Xavier University, which has campuses on Chicago’s Southwest Side and Orland Park, had been able to weather the storm so far, other institutions are not that fortunate.

Officials at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston have announced that teacher cuts are a real possibility. The administration at Western Illinois University in Macomb has stated that at least 30 teachers will be laid off with more to come.

Officials at Chicago State University, at 95th and King Drive, have said that without funding from the state, they may have to cease operations on March 1. An official from Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills said that enrollment figures have dipped somewhat from previous years. The school official also said she would like to see the MAP funding restored.

If Rauner signs the bill, Burke’s measure could restore the operating budget for the City Colleges of Chicago, restore grants for technical education, adult education and adult literacy programs across the state. Legislators passed funding for each of these programs within the Higher Education budget in May of 2015. The governor later vetoed the support for these programs, and they have remained without state support as Illinois still remains without a permanent budget.

“A student’s place of birth or the success of their parents shouldn’t dictate their ability to receive a quality education,” said Burke. “MAP grants and other vital programs allow thousands of students an opportunity to better themselves through education that may otherwise not have been available. It’s unconscionable that these programs have remained unfunded for this long.”

Bennett and other mayors were sympathetic to the plight of local colleges and universities. The longer the state goes without a budget, problems like this are going to occur, the mayors acknowledged.

“All we can do is protect our revenues,” said Bennett. “We need to be proactive and the bottom line is the budget. Until we get a budget solved, we are hanging on by a thread.”