Illinois legislators consider more higher education funding

By Monique Garcia and Celeste Bott, Chicago Tribune

Lawmakers are taking a second bite at the apple in an effort to keep public universities and community colleges afloat through the summer, advancing legislation Tuesday that would free up an additional $453 million for schools struggling to get by during the state’s record-breaking budget impasse.

The move follows a rare bipartisan agreement struck late last month on a stopgap measure to funnel $600 million to schools in an effort to stop mass layoffs and keep campuses open while Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats in the legislature remain deadlocked over a full spending plan.

While legislators patted themselves on the back for banding together to provide emergency help for higher education, most schools took a 70 percent cut in funding. The exception was Chicago State University, which received $20 million — or about 60 percent of its usual funding. But even that was not enough to prevent the school on the city’s Far South Side from laying off 300 workers — about 30 percent of its workforce — last week.


Still, some lawmakers thought it was not fair that Chicago State received a higher percentage of its state funding than other schools, leading to the latest push for more money.

Under the plan that cleared a Senate committee Tuesday, all universities except Chicago State would split an additional $312 million. That would bring all schools up to a 60 percent funding level. Community colleges would get another $90 million, and an additional $46 million would be set aside for a scholarship program for low-income students. The measure also includes more than $4 million for the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a residential high school in Aurora.

The proposal relies on another measure that would drop the requirement that the state repay about $450 million it borrowed from special funds to plug a different budget hole last year.

“It’s important to note, this brings parity back to the higher education community and all of these appropriations have a funding mechanism,” Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Rauner said that while he is “open to discussing emergency bridge funding” for higher education and other services, he is focused on a more comprehensive budget deal, which has remained elusive.

In other action, lawmakers sought to beat a Sunday deadline to place questions on the November ballot that would ask voters if the Illinois Constitution should be amended to make changes ranging from how legislative districts are drawn to eliminating the lieutenant governor’s office.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, to overhaul how district boundaries are mapped overwhelmingly passed the House, but it’s unlikely to be acted on in the Senate, where lawmakers have approved a competing plan.


Franks’ plan would turn over the mapping process to a separate commission appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court. The Senate version would largely keep lawmakers in control of mapping but allow for public hearings.

A third proposal is being pushed by organizers of a petition drive who say they have gathered more than double the 290,000-plus voter signatures needed to make the proposal eligible for the Nov. 8 ballot. That plan, which is backed by Rauner, would remove the legislature’s direct involvement in drawing its own boundaries and replace it with a more complicated method that supporters argue puts distance between politics and the process.

Meanwhile, an attempt to eliminate the lieutenant governor’s office was effectively quashed after changes to the proposal failed to clear a Senate committee. House lawmakers had already signed off on the plan, but it was picked up by Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who sought to make changes in the provision regarding succession.

Brady took issue with a provision designating the attorney general as the state’s No. 2, saying the governorship might then fall to someone who was not in the same political party as the governor elected by voters. But Democrats and Republicans alike accused Brady of purposely hijacking the bill, saying that even if lawmakers agreed with his changes there was not enough time for the proposal to be voted on by both chambers before the weekend deadline.

“Sen. Brady clearly filed a poison pill amendment to kill my constitutional amendment,” said House sponsor Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills. “It’s unfortunate that he decided to play politics instead of saving taxpayers money.”

While Democrats and Republicans have long called for doing away with the lieutenant governor’s office to save money, plans to do so have stalled repeatedly. That’s because neither party is willing to eliminate a slot on the statewide ticket, where the office is often used to try to balance gender, geographic and racial considerations.

Also Tuesday, the Senate approved a measure to remove the term “alien” from state law pertaining to immigration, instead using “documented or undocumented workers.”

Opponents didn’t see why the term “alien” was inappropriate, arguing that people are looking for straight talk, not political correctness.

“‘Undocumented worker’ implies that they’re working legally and they’re not,” said Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove.

Oberweis has faced criticism for his own use of the word during his second of three unsuccessful U.S. Senate bids in 2004, when he ran TV ads showing him flying over Soldier Field in a helicopter, contending enough “illegal aliens” cross the border and steal jobs to “fill Soldier Field every single week.” That figure was strongly disputed.

Sponsoring Rep. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, said the legislation was a way to show dignity and respect for people who contribute to both the country and Illinois.

“We are not Martians, we are not extraterrestrial beings,” he said, describing his parents’ own experience as immigrants from Mexico. A similar measure has passed the House.

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