Dems advance latest higher ed bill, take another stab at union measure

By Monique Garcia and Celeste Bott, Chicago Tribune

Democrats once again sought to bolster their election-year campaign attack fodder against Republicans on Thursday, voting for the latest plan to fund higher education and another union-backed measure to prevent a worker lockout or strike following earlier vetoes by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Neither proposal is expected to become law — Rauner opposes both measures, and Democrats in the House have been unable to remain united to overturn the governor. But calling the bills for votes provides roll calls that can be used in mailers and TV ads in which Democrats can say they voted to fund education and support unions while most Republicans were opposed.

The action marked the second straight day of political gamesmanship at the Capitol. On Wednesday, House Democrats were unable to override Rauner’s veto of a bill to funnel $721 million to community colleges and scholarships for low-income students tied up in the budget stalemate.


Instead, House Speaker Michael Madigan doubled down, bringing forth a different proposal Thursday that would provide more than $3.5 billion for higher education, as well as dozens of other programs including rape crisis centers, meals for seniors, violence prevention and mental health.

The spending would be partially paid for by tapping into specialized funds and allowing the state to forgo repaying $450 million it borrowed from similar funds to plug a budget hole last year, a concept Rauner suggested in his latest budget proposal. Madigan’s office characterized the legislation as a “compromise” because it relied on an idea from Rauner, though the governor’s office was quick to dismiss the plan as a gimmick.

Before the vote, Rauner budget chief Tim Nuding sent a memo to lawmakers saying the state had no way to pay for the billions of dollars in additional spending. He declared the legislation a “giant step backward” as Illinois enters a record-breaking ninth month without a complete budget.

“It’s just really, really sad that we’re continuing down a process of more political propaganda,” said House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago said Democrats were not suggesting “we have all the revenues in this needed to meet the need,” but passing the legislation would allow those struggling without any funding from the state to get in line for possible payment.

Currie said it was up to the comptroller’s office to continue to prioritize which programs rise to the top of the pile of bills to be paid, likening the role to “triage.”

The measure now heads to the Senate.


Earlier Thursday, the Senate sent Rauner a separate labor-backed measure that would prevent a lockout or strike if talks with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and other unions reach an impasse, instead sending the matter to binding arbitration.

A similar bill passed the General Assembly last year but was vetoed by Rauner. An override effort failed in the House.

The latest effort followed Rauner’s request that the Illinois Labor Relations Board determine whether his administration and AFSCME have reached a stage in their protracted contract negotiations that would allow him to bypass further talks and impose his own terms on the roughly 38,000 state workers the union represents.

That review could take months, and Rauner and the union have agreed to keep workers on the job in the meantime. But if Rauner ultimately succeeds in putting a stop to the talks, the union will have to decide whether to go on strike for the first time.

Republicans argue the bill is an attempt by the union to force a contract on the state that it cannot afford, while Democrats say it’s intended to stop a possible work disruption under a governor who has repeatedly tried to erode the power of organized labor.

In the end, it was approved 38-17, with two Republicans voting in favor. They were Sen. Neil Anderson of Rock Island and Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview, who also backed the bill last time. McCann’s district includes Springfield, where many union state workers live. Rauner has endorsed McCann’s Republican primary challenger in one of the most hotly contested legislative races pitting the governor and his allies against union interests.

Also Thursday, the House overwhelmingly supported a measure to give Chicago an elected school board. While praised as proof legislators can work together across the aisle despite larger differences, it’s more likely another example of providing political cover before the primary, particularly for city Democrats.

There’s been increasing outcry to shake things up at Chicago Public Schools amid a financial crisis that’s seen the district lay off workers while seeking a bailout from the state.

“CPS is in crisis. We’ve been facing devastating cuts, continually operating in crisis mode and instability all around,” said Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago. “(The appointed school board) is not working for CPS kids. There’s no accountability, no semblance of democracy or democratic process. There’s no opportunity for input and there’s no checks and balances.”

Despite the strong support in the House, it’s unclear if the measure will move through the Senate, where President John Cullerton is tightly aligned with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has long opposed an elected school board.

Asked about the legislation Thursday, Emanuel said the real issue is how Illinois funds schools.

“That legislation doesn’t address all these inequities, and that’s what I’m focused on adjusting,” Emanuel said.

As he has in the past when asked about that opposition, Emanuel tried to argue that the local school councils at each Chicago school are like elected school boards.

“As you know, we have elected school boards for every school, and they’re active, it’s the largest democratic body in the country,” he said.


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