With School Funding Up in the Air, Illinois Governor Calls Lawmakers Back Into Session
By Kim Geiger
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has summoned lawmakers back to Springfield for a special session Wednesday after Democrats who control the General Assembly did not meet his noon Monday deadline to send him an education funding formula bill crucial to getting state money distributed for the upcoming school year.
With an income tax hike and budget already approved over Rauner's objections at the start of the month, the schools measure is the biggest remaining flashpoint between the governor and lawmakers. So far, the two sides can't even agree on how to return to the negotiating table, as the finger-pointing and blame game that marked a record stalemate continues.
Lawmakers passed a bill at the end of May rewriting how the state divides school money. Rauner quickly threatened to veto it, and Democratic leaders put a hold on it in the hopes of working out a compromise.
During the past week, Rauner repeatedly demanded that lawmakers release it so he could use his veto pen to rewrite the bill, which he calls a bailout for Chicago Public Schools. On Friday, the governor warned he'd call a special session if the bill wasn't on his desk by midday Monday.
Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, whose chamber is holding onto the bill, has pushed for a meeting between Rauner and legislative leaders.
"We slowed down the process in the Senate in order to let everyone blow off some steam, politically speaking," Cullerton said in a statement issued before the governor's special session call went out. "Six weeks later, the governor's temper continues to flare. I don't want him making statewide classroom funding decisions out of a position of anger. I'd like the opportunity to make sure he knows what is in the proposal from the people who wrote it so he can make a rational decision."
Rauner said he is eager to ink his rewrite to the legislation and accused Democrats of "playing political games with our children's education."
"There is no legitimate reason, none, for (Senate Bill 1) not to be on my desk," Rauner said during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop. "How many bills have they sent to my desk that I was going to veto? That doesn't stop them."
A couple of hours after the news conference, Rauner issued special session proclamations covering Wednesday through Friday and the following Monday.
While the move allows Rauner to look like he's pressing for a resolution, lawmakers were going to be headed back to the Capitol anyway to deal once the governor vetoed the bill.
The special session speeds up their return, and time is a factor in this fight, as the first round of general state aid payments are due to schools by Aug. 10. Missing that payment won't necessarily keep schools from opening their doors for the new school year -- most districts have reserves on hand that could keep operations going for at least a few weeks or months -- but it would certainly ratchet up pressure for a deal.
What happens in the special session depends on whether lawmakers send Rauner the bill. If they do, and if he uses his amendatory veto powers to rework the measure, it would take three-fifths of lawmakers to override him. That would require Republicans to split with their governor like they did in passing a tax hike and budget, and it remains to be seen whether enough Republicans would join Democrats on the school funding bill.
Lawmakers and the governor also could ditch the current legislation and come up with a new bill. So far, neither side has publicly indicated an interest in that approach.
At issue are provisions in the education funding formula legislation that provide extra dollars to CPS, the only school district in Illinois that has to cover the costs of its teacher pension system. Democrats have made several attempts in recent years to give more money to the city school district, while Rauner has tried to leverage the issue for his other legislative aims.
The measure on hold in the Senate bases the way school dollars are doled out on a new "evidence-based" approach, which both sides agree is the best way to distribute dollars equitably. Both sides also agree that no school district should lose money as a result of the change, meaning that the formula should be used only on "new" dollars set aside for education above the amounts that were sent out last school year. That's where the agreement stops.
Democrats say that CPS, which receives about $250 million in extra grant money each year, should be able to keep it as part of its funding base. Additionally, they say the district should receive about $215 million extra to help cover the cost of its teacher pensions. The state picks up those costs for suburban and downstate teachers.
Republicans counter that CPS has been getting a special deal -- the $250 million in extra grant money -- that makes up for the lack of state pension funds. And the GOP contends the district's financial troubles, particularly its pension debt, are the result of CPS leaders skipping pension payments for more than a decade.
The extra pension money was baked into the Democratic bill, and that's what's in Rauner's sights. The governor argued Monday that the measure "diverts money from the rest of the state and the suburbs to Chicago."
Under the Democrats' bill, however, every school district would start with the same amount of funding it received last year. In addition, each would get a portion of the additional $350 million in education funding that was enacted as part of the budget and tax increase that Rauner opposed. CPS would receive about $71 million of that money, as well as the $215 million to help cover its pension costs.
Rauner said Monday he wants to take that CPS pension money and spread it around to other districts. How he would do that is unclear. A spreadsheet posted online by the governor's office shows that Rauner's proposal would take about $145 million from what CPS would receive under the bill and distribute the money to other districts around the state. Neither Rauner nor his education secretary, Beth Purvis, would say how they arrived at that number, however.
"I need it on my desk and you will see," Rauner said when asked if he planned to slash CPS special grant dollars in addition to pension money.
Purvis told the Tribune that the administration is "not going to issue the specifics of the (amendatory veto) until the bill is on his desk."
As the governor tries to build support, a re-election-seeking Rauner spent the past week visiting rural schools, where he's promised extra money to their districts if lawmakers approve his changes.
As Rauner talked policy Monday, the Illinois Republican Party he subsidizes launched digital ads blasting Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan for "holding schools hostage."
Asked to respond to Rauner's special session call, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said he had "no response."
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the governor should approve the bill as-is, calling it an historic opportunity to "fund education equitably and fairly and treat all children, regardless of income or regardless of race, fairly across the state."
The mayor also said he discussed CPS funding during a City Hall meeting with Madigan and Cullerton, but declined to say whether they were working on a plan on how to proceed if the governor vetoes the bill.
"We talked about making sure, and I want to be very clear, the children of the city of Chicago will be in school at the start of the school year, and they will be in school with a full school day and a full school year, because that's where they belong," Emanuel said.
Chicago Tribune's Hal Dardick contributed.
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