Rauner, Madigan both blink on higher education money


Michael Madigan and Bruce Rauner. (TNS)

By Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune

For months, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan held firm on what it would take to turn on the spigot and let state money flow to cash-starved universities and community colleges caught up in Illinois’ record-setting budget impasse.

The governor wasn’t going to budge on higher education funding until schools cut administrative costs and he got money-saving changes in the way the state and universities purchase goods or some flexibility to move money around in the state budget.

The Democratic speaker wanted a measure that also includes money for social services such as drug and alcohol treatment, autism therapy and homeless prevention programs.


In the end, both of them blinked.

Facing heat from rank-and-file members to do something before a weeklong break for Passover, Madigan held a vote Friday on a measure to spend $600 million to keep universities afloat through the summer, including cash-strapped Chicago State University on the Far South Side. Rauner plans to sign the bill into law as early as Monday.

The measure doesn’t include Rauner’s wish list. But it also doesn’t have money for social services that Madigan’s Democrats wanted.

Freed from the pressure valve of partisan gamesmanship that has vise-gripped Illinois’ finances, the higher education relief package easily passed, a reflection of the ability of crisis to leverage politics. It symbolized a rare confluence of interests in a stalemated state government, with the stakes of inaction ultimately proving to be too high a political risk for anyone.

The rare cooperation, however, appears to be only a brief interlude in the feud between Rauner and Madigan, rather than the sign of a major first step to end Illinois’ political dysfunction during a critical election year in the General Assembly.

Shortly after the House vote of 106-2 and Senate vote of 55-0, the veteran speaker lashed out at the first-term governor, accusing him of creating a crisis that threatened college closures and denied monetary assistance to students from low-income families.

“I am hopeful the governor sees the funding in this higher education package not as a solution, but as emergency assistance to those most in need,” Madigan said in a statement.


“Time will tell if Gov. Rauner has further intentions of destroying our state institutions and human service providers, or if he will begin working with us to craft a full-year budget that is not contingent on passage of his demands that will destroy the middle class,” Madigan said.

Rauner’s camp offered a much more reserved response to the vote, albeit leaving intact a key condition for how he sees the road ahead: “reform.”

“By passing this bipartisan agreement, lawmakers in both chambers put aside political differences to provide emergency assistance for higher education, ensuring universities and community colleges remain open and low-income students can pay for school,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in a statement.

“We are hopeful the General Assembly will build on this bipartisan momentum in the weeks ahead as we negotiate a balanced budget with reform for fiscal years 2016 and 2017,” she said.

It is Rauner’s use of the term “reform” that is at the crux of the Illinois impasse — a euphemism for what he calls his “turnaround agenda” that seeks pro-business, union-weakening changes as preconditions for agreeing to a complete state budget that includes higher taxes.

With Democratic supermajorities in each chamber, Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have summarily rejected Rauner’s agenda, which would weaken traditional allies in organized labor and among civil liability attorneys. Those are groups being counted upon to help fund Democratic campaigns against Republicans backed by Rauner, a former private equity investor with deep-pocketed friends.

The higher education funding measure — along with a separate but related plan the Senate voted for Friday to provide $441 million in payments to some social service and public health providers — were easily approved with the governor’s support and without the attachment of his agenda items.

It was a significant backing down by the Republican governor, who has criticized education unions as among the public labor special interests who have a “corrupt” bargain with politicians that he sees as at the core of Illinois’ troubled finances.

But it’s not the first time Rauner has backed down, including from more strict child-care eligibility standards, cuts in autism funding and allowing the pass-through of local government dollars and paychecks to state workers.

The only portion of the current budget year’s spending plan that Rauner signed was for elementary and high school education after urging his own GOP lawmakers to vote against it. That kept the governor off the hook from criticism if schools had failed to open last fall.

Higher education was different, however.

Rauner vetoed that appropriation, and last month he vetoed another higher education funding bill, chiding Democrats for taking a “political vote that was never going to pass.”

Since July, Rauner-led Republicans had staked out a couple of positions.

One alternative was to fund universities at 80 percent of what they received in the 2015 budget year, fund community colleges at 90 percent and fully fund the MAP grants. But the $1.7 billion in costs was tied to a measure creating new authority for Rauner to shift money around in the budget — something Democrats would not allow without knowing what he was planning to do.

Another plan would have changed state procurement laws in a move Rauner estimated would free up $500 million. But Madigan viewed such changes with skepticism, a sign of the lack of trust that exists between himself and the governor. Madigan contended the current state laws for procuring goods were the result of scandals in previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Other Democrats questioned the perceived amount of savings Rauner estimated.

As the disagreement continued, layoffs at many public universities already had begun, program cuts were in the works, some schools were seeking repayment of Monetary Award Program grants they had front-loaded to students, and Chicago State, which serves a largely African-American student body, was set to run out of money at month’s end.

Additionally, many Downstate public universities are located in legislative districts held by Republicans, who have come under increased pressure to support a funding rescue package and could find themselves facing a serious challenge in the fall general election.

In many cases, those schools are often the economic drivers of rural regions that have seen a decline in manufacturing and mining, providing higher incomes and spending to support local businesses that are at the heart of Rauner’s overall state economic message.

Chicago State meltdown? Democrats’ fault, Rauner says

With Chicago State University in financial meltdown, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday turned to a familiar argument about who’s to blame.

At the same time, Democratic leaders who saw Rauner support the higher education measure considered expanding the bill to also include funding for social services not currently covered by judicial consent decrees.

The idea was to try to force Rauner into taking out the extra spending and taking the blame that would come with it.

But rather than dare Rauner to partially or totally veto the measure – and help ensure the collapse of universities — Democrats ultimately opted to go with the stand-alone higher education measure.

“To see us voting on this motion without a dime for human services is particularly painful,” state Sen. Daniel Biss said. But the Evanston Democrat voted in favor, saying, “We have an obligation not to play some multidimensional chess game, but to do what’s needed for our communities and our institutions.”

While Rauner has focused on what he calls “reform,” the key toward any future budget resolution is “revenue” — the ability of the state to actually have the cash to pay for the programs it provides. That was abundantly clear in how the higher education bill was approved, as well as the Senate’s passage of a small stopgap human services bill that now goes to the House, where its future is less certain.

Unlike previous funding measures sent to Rauner, the money for universities, community colleges and tuition grants has a revenue source, the Illinois Education Assistance Fund. The dollars are aimed at tiding schools over until the fall when tuition and fee money starts rolling in.

While court orders and various laws have kept money flowing for the majority of state government, the largest area without funding is the state’s network of social service providers. Programs struggling to survive range from funeral and burial assistance for the poor, services for homeless youth, HIV and AIDS treatment and crisis centers for rape victims.

The separate bill the Senate passed Friday without dissent seeks to bridge $441 million in funding for some of those social services, which are currently not receiving any money, through a specially dedicated but untapped fund.

“Every bit of spending in this bill is paid for, both higher ed and human services,” said Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno. “That is the model we are trying to achieve. That is the sort of reset in budgeting we need for this state.”


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