Senate Democrats want more school money, not cuts

Published: Friday, May 17, 2013 6:15 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD (AP) — Illinois Senate Democrats want to boost general education funding by $156 million next year, not cut it, key budget negotiators said Friday, but acknowledged the increase would only keep per-student funding level.

Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed a $150 million reduction in general state aid for primary and secondary schools in the budget that begins July 1, largely because of the pressure of mounting pension obligations. But lawmakers should ditch that plan, Sens. Heather Steans and Dan Kotowski said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Steans, of Chicago, and Kotowski, from Park Ridge, discussed a budget "framework" a day after presenting it to their Democratic colleagues and just two weeks before the General Assembly's scheduled adjournment. It also calls for using hundreds of millions of dollars in unanticipated state revenues to immediately pay down past-due bills, an idea that has support in the House and that Quinn embraces.

Kotowski called it a "realistic budget" that recognizes education's importance.

"We see what businesses are saying. And families, they want a world-class education for their kids," Kotowski said.

But it's still not the full funding state law requires. This year, the so-called foundation level was $6,119 per pupil, and the state provided 89 percent of that. Quinn's proposed budget reduction would drop that proration to 82 percent. The plan from Steans and Kotowski would keep it at 89 percent — of the current level.

"We'd love to be able to fully fund education but this is not draconian," Steans said. "It really does provide a very good base. And until we deal with pensions, which clearly are an ongoing issue, we're going to continue to have pressures."

Lawmakers are trying to fashion a plan that likely will result in higher pension contributions by employees and less-generous benefits for retirees to close what has become a $97 billion shortfall in what the state must have to cover retirement benefits for current and former workers.

Quinn's assistant budget director, Abdon Pallasch, noted the Democrat's proposed budget would not reduce early childhood education or college grants while Quinn continues to make a pension fix his primary task.

"The administration is working with legislators to find ways to minimize cuts to other education-related areas of the budget," Pallasch said.

Steans and Kotowski, who each chair appropriations committees for the Senate, also stressed the desire of their caucus to use at least $400 million from unanticipated revenue this spring to pay overdue bills for social-service providers in programs that help seniors and disabled people in their homes.

The pay-down would continue reducing what until recently had consistently been a $9 billion backlog. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka's office said Friday the total in owed bills is down to $5.8 billion, of which $2.2 billion is truly overdue — 30 or more days old.

The budget outline presented by Steans and Kotowski includes $142 million to pay bills in the Department on Aging's program that helps seniors stay in their homes and $235 million for overdue payments to service providers for developmentally disabled residents in group homes and programs that relieve family members who are full-time, at-home caregivers to disabled children or adults.

The money comes from an "April surprise" that found more than $1 billion extra in state accounts, which experts believe came from wealthier taxpayers and corporations taking actions to minimize higher 2013 federal tax rates. So they expect them to be one-time revenues.

Senate Democrats estimate fiscal year 2014 general-revenue spending to be $35.1 billion, about 1 percent less than Quinn predicts, but that is $400 million up from the $34.6 billion estimated to come in this year. That would leave some room for the extra school spending, Senate Democrats' spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

House Democrats are of the same mind in terms of finding more money for classrooms. But Rep. William "Will" Davis, a Homewood Democrat who heads the Elementary and Secondary Education Appropriations Committee, said his colleagues are looking for the money in other parts of the spending plan.

"We still have some very challenging decisions with regards to other parts of the budget," Davis said.

Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, chairman of the House Human Services Appropriations Committee, said this week his panel is looking for nearly $800 million in cuts from human services programs. But like his Senate counterparts, he is looking at the unexpected revenue as a way to pay down some bills now and avert cuts in the next budget year.

___

Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.

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