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Chicago State meltdown? Democrats’ fault, Rauner says

Michael+Madigan+and+Bruce+Rauner.+%28TNS%29
Michael Madigan and Bruce Rauner. (TNS)

Michael Madigan and Bruce Rauner. (TNS)

Michael Madigan and Bruce Rauner. (TNS)

By Monique Garcia and Celeste Bott, Chicago Tribune

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

“I am very upset Chicago State University may have to close their doors and ask for the keys from employees. That’s an outrage. That should never have happened. There’s really no excuse for it,” Rauner said. “I believe that the supermajority in the legislature is using Chicago State and many other service providers in Illinois as leverage to try to force a massive tax hike. I believe that’s what’s going on, and that’s wrong.”

Whether it’s layoffs of workers who care for the elderly, cuts in programs like autism therapy or a new contract with state workers, Rauner’s answer has been the same during the nine-month budget impasse: It’s those Democrats orchestrating chaos to build pressure for a tax increase to ease the state’s financial woes.

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When it comes to higher education, however, Democrats counter that it’s Rauner who should take responsibility for the unraveling of the state’s system.

Spokesmen for House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton noted the governor signed a bill to fund K-12 education but vetoed the rest of the budget Democrats sent him, including spending for universities. That left public universities and community colleges operating without financial help from the state since July, and hard-hit Chicago State has said it will not have enough money to cover payroll after April.

In preparation of possible layoffs, schools officials sent an email to deans asking they collect all keys, but a spokesman backtracked from that position on Wednesday, saying employees do not need to hand in their keys “at this time,” but that the university will begin “taking inventory” of where keys are.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Rauner “doesn’t understand the facts.”

“He’s the one who put out a budget a year ago that cut higher education by roughly 30 percent. He’s the one who while signing one education appropriation bill, vetoed the appropriation bill for higher education,” Brown said. “The one who is trying to destroy higher education — and the destruction is pretty significant already — is the governor.”

Under the budget lawmakers passed last year, $1.9 billion was set aside to run universities and community colleges, a 6.5 percent decrease from the year before. Rauner had proposed a 31 percent cut for this fiscal year.

Democrats acknowledged that the budget they sent Rauner was at least $4 billion out of balance, but said Rauner should have used his veto powers to cut specific programs instead of striking down the entire budget. Rauner has tied any budget agreement to winning portions of his pro-business, anti-union agenda that Democrats argue will undermine the middle class.

Rauner contends there’s a bipartisan fix on the table to keep the most troubled universities afloat through the end of the year, pointing to legislation sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin that would send $160 million to struggling universities and $40 million to community colleges by tapping into special funds. It would take effect only if a separate bill is approved that would no longer require the state to pay back $454 million Rauner’s administration borrowed last year from similar funds.

In effect, the bill would spend money that’s already gone out the door. Dunkin repeatedly has sided with Rauner instead of fellow Democrats on budget and labor issues. Dunkin lost the March 15 primary election to Juliana Stratton, who was backed by unions and Democratic leaders.

“We could keep their doors open, to keep their staffs employed, and we can keep them open not for years, but for the rest of this year while we’re working out the rest of the budget compromise,” Rauner said. “There’s an answer, it’s been put forward, it should be called to a vote and it should pass. It’s the right thing to do.”

Because Rauner vetoed the budget last summer, House and Senate Democrats have made several attempts to pass piecemeal spending measures to fund higher education.

Rauner vetoed the first bill to reach his desk, which would have funded community colleges and a state scholarship program for low-income students. He has threatened to do the same to similar legislation under consideration. The governor has argued that there isn’t enough money to cover the extra costs, saying universities should cut administrative costs to free up dollars for operations and overhaul their contracting process to provide funds for the scholarships.

Still, the governor said, any deal to help higher education is unlikely without an agreement with Madigan. Rauner said his office reached out about a one-on-one meeting but has yet to hear back. But in a show of just how dysfunctional Springfield has become, Madigan spokesman Brown disputed that statement, saying there has yet to be a direct request for a face to face.

Rather, Brown said a Rauner staff member had asked a Madigan staff member about getting dinner “where one of the topics would be whether it would be productive to have a meeting one on one between the governor and the speaker.”

“To the best of my knowledge, that dinner hasn’t occurred,” Brown said. Asked if the speaker would agree to meet with Rauner, Brown responded, “I have no idea.”

Rauner said the back and forth was another example of the political games that have marked his time in office so far.

“I think you can sense when games are being played,” Rauner said. “Why can’t we meet today?”

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(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune

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