Uncertain future for funding reform

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SPRINGFIELD—Advocates for school funding reform are focusing on “next year” after a once-promising spring legislative session left them empty-handed.

“Next year” is an election year, when the governor’s office, two-thirds of the Illinois Senate and the entire Illinois House are up for grabs. Champions of a tax swap proposal designed to bring in more money for schools plan to use that to their advantage.

Pushing a school funding overhaul at the Statehouse “keeps the pressure and the limelight on the issue” during the election cycle, explains Bindu Batchu, campaign manager for A+ Illinois, a coalition of organizations supporting funding reform.

Politicians often run on their commitment to education, and that means they will be sensitive to the need for change, says Batchu. “When we’re talking about education generally, school funding is one of the top—if not the top issue,” she says.

But election years usually pose problems for ambitious proposals, too.

Traditionally, state lawmakers leave the more contentious issues for odd-numbered years and focus their attention on getting reelected during even-numbered years. And voting for a tax hike right before the primary or general elections could prove politically dangerous for legislators.

One step forward, two steps back?

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s determination to keep his campaign promise not to raise income taxes has been the chief obstacle for tax swap proponents, whose proposal involves boosting the state income tax while offering some property tax relief to get a net gain for schools.

Last spring, tax swap advocates pushed their proposal all the way through Senate hearings, but the idea stalled before going to the full chamber.

“It was disappointing,” says Sean Noble, senior policy associate for Voices for Illinois Children, one of the groups backing funding reform. “But it’s still progress.”

Whether tax swap proponents are making headway back home is another question. Those who are against the idea say it has lost traction among suburban and Downstate voters.

Getting a 60 percent majority to override a Blagojevich veto would require some Republican lawmakers to vote for the tax swap. The vast majority of GOP senators oppose the plan.

“The devil’s in the details,” explains state Sen. Peter J. Roskam, R-Wheaton, who spent $40,000 of his campaign funds to run ads opposing the concept.

Initially, tax swap proponents championed a measure that would have increased the state sales tax to 5 percent from 3 percent. It was designed to shore up school funding, offer property tax relief and raise additional funds to pay for the state’s basic services. But critics pointed out that the proposal would have raised more money for the state than it earmarked for schools.

So Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, crafted a more palatable version that just focused on education funding and property tax relief. His measure kept the income tax increase but left the sales tax alone. His bill would have sent some of the extra education funding to community colleges and state universities, including the University of Illinois, which Winkel represents. But the compromise died.

Support for the tax swap may be eroding downstate, according to a lobbyist who represents suburban schools.

Donna Baiocchi, executive director of Ed-Red, a consortium of more than 100 school districts, says more voters in downstate communities have grown wary of the idea and are making their concerns known to lawmakers.

A decade ago, principal opposition to the idea came mostly from the suburbs. Suburban districts still object to a tax swap because they have grown to distrust promises by the state, she says.

State lawmakers continue to fall short of their promises on how much money they will give to school districts in grants for transportation and special education, she says. They have not updated salary rates for special education teachers in 20 years, and this year, they skipped out on more than $1 billion they owed the state pension system—including a pension program that covers the retirement of downstate teachers, she notes.

Batchu of A+ Illinois points out that Blagojevich “recognizes there is a problem [in school funding]. The problem is getting him to recognize there is a revenue problem.”

Daniel C. Vock was a Springfield correspondent for Catalyst. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.