From Springfield: Legislators weigh in on school funding bill

Bipartisan measure provides emergency funds for state’s universities and colleges

By Mark Fitton 
For The Rock River Times

SPRINGFIELD – The General Assembly on Friday approved  $600 million for Illinois colleges and universities struggling to get through the academic year given the state’s lack of financial support.

The money won’t come from state general funds, but from a fund for education assistance said to be able to cover the tab.

Amendments by Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, to Senate Bill 2059 became the successful vehicle for the money. The amended bill easily passed in the House on a vote of 106-2 and in the Senate on a vote of 55-0.

The legislation, driven by rank-and-file legislators, seemed nearly derailed on Thursday when Mayfield pulled it from consideration despite appearing to have the votes to send it through.

Some lawmakers reportedly fought to add funding for human service programs, while others sought only emergency education money as part of what they perceived as a bipartisan deal already struck.

The education-only package then re-emerged Friday, its bipartisan support intact.

Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledged the package was not a complete higher-education fix for either fiscal year 2016, now nearly 10 months old, or fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.

Instead, it provides about $350  million to state universities and about $170 million for Monetary Award Program grants to help cover partial tuition costs already incurred by low-income students.

It also sends about $74 million to the state’s community college system and provides $6 million for operation of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

Local reaction

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction and resolves the immediate crisis,” said Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford.

“At the end of day, it was about rank-and-file lawmakers from both sides being part of the process and leadership agreeing to it,” he said.

“We’re going to need a lot more of that moving forward,” Stadelman added.

“It’s a positive sign,” said Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford.

Sosnowski said he had some concerns about the bill, including the proportion of Chicago State University’s budget being covered by the state. But, he added, the funds were available without the state having to go deeper into the red, and the immediate crisis is averted.

Going forward, he said, “We’ll have to do a better job of getting performance-based funding and cost controls into the equation, but I think this administration is very keyed into that and we have a chance of making some progress there for the first time in years.”

Back downstate

Comptroller Leslie Munger, R-Lincolnshire, said the state would immediately begin paying out the money from its Education Assistance Fund, which currently has about $354 million on hand.

“Those dollars will allow us to immediately pay student MAP grants and work closely with our universities and community colleges to ensure they have the resources they need to avoid further cuts and closings,” Munger said in a news release. ” We will continue disbursing funds as they become available, with final payments being made in July.”

Rauner’s office praised the legislation.

“By passing this bipartisan agreement, lawmakers in both chambers put aside political differences to provide emergency assistance for higher education, ensuring universities and community colleges remain open and low-income students can pay for school,” gubernatorial spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in a statement.

“We are hopeful the General Assembly will build on this bipartisan momentum in the weeks ahead as we negotiate a balanced budget with reform for Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said, “I am hopeful the governor sees the funding in this higher education package not as a solution, but as emergency assistance to those most in need.

“Time will tell if Gov. Rauner has further intentions of destroying our state institutions and human service providers, or if he will begin working with us to craft a full-year budget that is not contingent on passage of his demands that will destroy the middle class,” according to a copy of the speaker’s statement posted on the Capitol Fax blog.

State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, said, “To be clear, the path ahead remains steep and rocky. There will be missteps. Today, however, shows what can be accomplished when we lift up each other and focus on serving the great people of our state.”

“I encourage my former colleagues in the House and Senate to forget the past, focus on the now and find additional ways to reach common ground in the future.”

Illinois has been without a budget since June 1 of last year, with higher education and many human services having gone unfunded.

While the Republican governor argues Democrats – who control both houses of the General Assembly – are seeking to tax more and spend more, the Democrats argue Rauner is pursuing a pro-business, union-busting agenda under the guise of reform.

Illinois also is sitting on about $7.2 billion in unpaid bills, and that amount is projected to grow to $10 billion to $12 billion by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2016. Additionally, Illinois’ unfunded pension obligations are estimated at more than $110 billion.

Mark Fitton is a Springfield-based journalist whose previous experience includes nearly 30  years with publications including The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, The Pantagraph in Bloomington, The Herald-News in Joliet and The Peoria Journal-Star.

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