By John O’Connor & Sophia Tareen
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner called on Monday for a second special legislative session in a month, this time after lawmakers ignored his noon deadline for sending him public education-funding legislation with just weeks before the scheduled opening of schools.
Rauner issued the summons for lawmakers to return to the Capitol beginning Wednesday after he held a news conference in Chicago to accuse Democrats who control the General Assembly of holding school children “hostage” to their political agenda.
“The Democrats in the majority are playing political games with our children’s education,” he told reporters, while again promising to change the legislation with an amendatory veto. “They seem to be intent on holding up school funding until August when schools need to open.”
For weary Illinois taxpayers, it’s just the latest flashpoint in an ongoing struggle between the first-term Republican executive and majority legislative Democrats. A special session earlier this this month concluded with Democrats enacting an annual budget — fueled by a 32 percent increase in the income tax rate — over Rauner vetoes. The budget was the first since 2015, ending the longest such stalemate of any state since at least the Great Depression.
It also includes a provision that prohibits the state from issuing state aid to schools unless it’s done through an “evidence-based” formula of the type the General Assembly endorsed in May. But threatened with a veto, the Senate never sent Rauner that legislation, prompting the governor’s call for special session.
At stake is the Illinois State Board of Education’s ability to start processing school-aid payments Aug. 1 and for the school bell to ring mid-month. Administrators at many schools say they have reserves or other means of opening, but some question for how long.
Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago said in a statement Monday that Rauner is confused about what the legislation does and has given conflicting messages about it.
“I’d like to have a conversation with Gov. Rauner in hopes of getting some clarity as to exactly what is going on,” Cullerton said in a statement. “We slowed down the process in the Senate in order to let everyone blow off some steam, politically speaking.”
The legislation would revise the way schools receive state aid for the first time in two decades. The method funnels money to the neediest school districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year. That includes a $250 million-a-year grant for the financially-troubled Chicago schools for programs funded separately in other districts and a requirement that the state pick up the annual, $215 million employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions.
Rauner contends the $250 million grant was meant to help pay retirement-account costs — something Chicago officials and proponents of the plan reject — and so the extra money is a “bailout” for past pension-payment shortfalls.
Democrats are holding the measure to build pressure, according to House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Westchester.
“The Democrats want to create and manufacture a school-funding crisis,” said Durkin, who appeared with Rauner in Chicago. “I want all schools funded fairly. I want all schools opening on time. We are going to open schools on time. The Democrats cannot stay silent on this issue. Send the bill to the governor.”
Illinois is one of just seven states that give its governor the power of amendatory veto. It allows a governor to return legislation with “specific recommendations for change.” But according to the state Supreme Court, that does not include changing a bill’s “fundamental purpose” or making “substantial or expansive” changes.
Rauner has vowed to excise the Chicago pension payment from the measure. He produced a list last week that showed an amendatory veto of the legislation, known as SB1, would cut $145 million from Chicago schools and distribute it to other districts across the state. But he has not explained who did the analysis or how the numbers were crunched. He declined, when asked on Monday, to explain what changes he would make with the amendatory veto.