Opinion: College funding Band-Aid is no big deal

Daily Egyptian file photo

Daily Egyptian file photo

By Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

No, last week’s heralded bipartisan agreement in Springfield to provide emergency funding to higher education was not a breakthrough.

It was not a hard-won compromise that signaled the beginning of the end of the state’s budget stalemate.

It generated no legislative momentum.


And it foretold no meaningful change in the entrenched positions of the warring parties.

I refuse to participate in the soft bigotry of low expectations by praising our lawmakers and the governor for agreeing to spend money the state already has to temporarily defuse a political bomb that was about to blow up in all their faces.

Let’s review what happened.

Due to a variety of court orders, federal mandates and other agreements, roughly 90 percent of state programs and services have been funded during the fiscal year that began last July even though the governor and the legislature have been unable to agree on a budget.

State colleges and universities have not been included, leaving many of them in financial distress — most urgently Chicago State University, which was facing imminent shutdown.

To tide these institutions over for a few months and postpone the wrath of constituents who recognize the importance of higher education to local economies and the state’s reputation and future, legislators agreed with near unanimity Friday to release $600 million from the Illinois Education Assistance Fund and appropriate it to the schools and the low-income scholarship fund.

Slow clap.


The measure, which Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Monday, spent money we already have. And since the stopgap expenditure was a reprieve not a lifeline, it didn’t require a tax increase and so wasn’t part of the fundamental, paralyzing battle between the Republican Rauner and the Democratically controlled General Assembly.

In that battle, Rauner is refusing to negotiate a new budget until the legislature agrees to portions of his union-weakening “turnaround agenda.”

Lawmakers and the governor did nothing to assure the long-term stability of state colleges and universities, which, absent real action on the budget, will be facing the same money woes again in just a few months when the new cash infusion runs out.

House Minority leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, indicated to reporters that this may be it for higher-ed funding this year, saying, “The only thing I’ve made a commitment with is to work with the Democrats on human services.”

In fact don’t be surprised if Republicans declare that this paltry level of funding – the amount disbursed is about 30 percent of the state money the colleges and universities got last budget year – is the new baseline if and when lawmakers and the governor get around to negotiating a budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins in July.

“We got rolled,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who was one of only two members of the House to oppose the deal. “Rauner ended up with a far bigger cut in education than he initially asked for because we caved and gave up our leverage. This was simply an agreement to postpone shooting the budget hostages. It’s nothing to be proud of.”

And nothing to be optimistic about.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, who voted for the deal, compared it to the deal last December in which Rauner and the Democrats agreed to free up some $3 billion in already-collected funds sitting in various state accounts in order to pay for lottery prizes, winter road salt, police training, local government services and the like.

Did that burst of pragmatism and seeming compromise signal the beginning of the end of political gridlock under the Dome? Did it show the way to a broader, lasting deal that did more than apply bandages to the state’s bleeding wounds?

It didn’t.

And, sad to say, neither does the higher-education deal.

“This changes nothing,” Biss said. “If anything, it just delays the final agreement we have to reach.”


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