Local legislators brace for school funding debate in budget aftermath

  • Written by Joe Boyle



By Joe Boyle

The state budget stalemate has finally come to a close after just over two years, but local legislators said that a long road is ahead.

“Well, we stopped the bleeding,” said state Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th), whose district includes portions of Worth Township and Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood. “I can’t say that I was confident that a budget was going to be reached. This is the third budget cycle we have gone through. It has been difficult. But I think most of us were ready.”

The long-awaited budget was reached last Thursday by a narrow margin and will include a state income tax increase. The increase will go from a 3.75 percent personal income tax rate to 4.95 percent. Legislators said that the increase will result in $4.3 billion in additional revenue. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd)) called for the vote. The budget passed due in part to 15 Republicans who voted for it.

But while a budget is in place that will see Motor Fuel Tax funding for local municipalities, some local universities that were on the brink of losing their accreditation. The approved budge has ended that – for now.

“I think it is important for all the legislators to work together,” Cunningham said. “We need to take a step back. After decades of dishonesty, we have to work on the pensions.”

Cunningham said that the state has about $15 billion in debts and there is only money to pay for half of that. The problem, which Cunningham dates back as far as 1917, is that the state has never dealt with a growing pension debt.

“This has been years in the making,” Cunningham said. “We are limited in what we can do because of the Supreme Court decision to not alter pension plans.”

Cunningham mentioned that the state will have $500 million in savings that Gov. Bruce Rauner has sought. Cunningham said that legislators are looking at a 401(k) type retirement plan. One plan would have employees contributing 6.2 percent toward the pension plan and a minimum of 4 percent toward the 401(k) proposal. At this point, these plans are in the discussion phase.

Right now, Cunningham and other legislators are concerned about funding for school districts throughout the state. Rauner, who was angry that the override took place with none of his Turnaround Agenda demands being implemented, said he would veto Senate Bill 1 that has passed both houses of the Legislature. House members approved it last Thursday about $350 million more in school funding.

State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-31st), whose district includes Oak Lawn and Chicago’s Southwest Side, said that she was pleased that a budget was reached.

“It was like taking an 800-pound gorilla off my chest,” Flowers said.

But like Cunningham, Flowers knows that a lot of work has to be done, including dealing with the disparity in funding for the Chicago Public Schools.

“I must say I was pleasantly surprised that (the budget) it went through,” Flowers said. “I was happy that we had bipartisan support. Every time we went to negotiate with the governor, he would change his position. So I am proud we got something done.”

But Flowers also said that more needs to be done for families in poverty and students who struggle because of low income households.

“That is going to be a heavy debate,” Flowers said. “I think the governor is going to try and veto (Senate Bill 1). Some changes have to be made to provide a quality education for everyone. And we need better access for health care for poorer residents. We need more on-the-job training.”

Flowers believes that legislators will be back in Springfield soon to determine how they are going to fund schools in Illinois and deal with increasing debt.

“There is a lot to do,” Flowers said. “Our institutions have been damaged. We have to really assess what Illinois government is going to be about.”

Cunningham said that he will be working with the comptroller’s office to make sure local schools receive funding. He mentioned that St. Xavier University should receive $6 million and Moraine Valley Community College is owed $1.5 million.

“We have local school districts that could use some help,” Cunningham said. “Senate Bill 1 would pump millions of dollars to schools that really need the funding.”