State Senate passes $454M higher-ed package

By Dave McKinney 
Reuters

CHICAGO – For the second time in two weeks, the Illinois Senate moved to loosen the financial death grip on the state’s higher education system, which has been starved of operating revenue by a record-setting, 11-month state budget stalemate.

The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved and sent to the House of Representatives a $454 million spending package for eight public universities, community colleges and low-income students dependent on Monetary Award Program grants.

The bipartisan move, which could stave off mass layoffs at several state universities, builds on a $600 million, higher-education appropriation that Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed on April 25.

Thursday’s action also represents another encouraging break in the state’s acrimonious budget fight between the governor and Democrats, who control the state legislature, as they face a scheduled legislative adjournment at the end of May.

“We have since found more dollars which we can appropriate to our universities to make them more competitive, to make them more viable and to give them a bridge going forth into the 2017 budget,” said state Senator Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and a sponsor of Thursday’s legislation.

The latest appropriation was supported financially by companion legislation that passed the Senate on Thursday authorizing Rauner’s administration not to repay $454 million borrowed from state special-purpose funds during the 2015 fiscal year. Without legislative action, that amount would have had to be repaid June 30 from the state’s main operational fund.

The approach drew isolated claims of budgetary sleight of hand during floor debate.

“This is ridiculous, swapping money from one pocket to another, saying you have it when you don’t,” said state Senator Kyle McCarter, a Republican from Lebanon, Illinois, a rural enclave nearly 300 miles southwest of Chicago.

The Senate-passed legislation cannot be acted on by the House until Tuesday at the earliest when that legislative chamber is scheduled to reconvene.

The respite for the state’s higher-education system comes after its community colleges received rating downgrades and negative outlooks by Moody’s Investors Service in recent weeks, and Chicago State University had faced the threat of possible closure.

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