WebExtra: Deja vu all over again?

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What a difference three months makes.

This spring, school funding activists were brimming with optimism that the legislature would finally takes steps to substantially boost the state’s share of education spending.

Now, legislators are in overtime and the major bill championed by advocates, HB750, stalled in the House and never came up for a vote in the Senate. For now, the cards appear stacked against any major overhaul of school funding, and none of the budget proposals that have been submitted would come close to fully funding the $6,405 recommended per-pupil spending next year.

A+ Illinois, the coalition of groups that support more education spending, is still seeking a legislative solution that addresses the core principles of equitable school funding and property tax relief.

“We’re not married to a specific bill,” says A+ campaign manager Mary Ellen Guest, who still hopes to win a substantial boost in school spending and says the group is continuing to lobby rank-and-file lawmakers to pressure leaders to come up with more money for schools. “This was to be the year, and we still believe that it is.”

As one sign of support, Guest notes that 55 legislators have signed a letter vowing not to support any budget that does not include an increase in education spending. A+ organizers have a new task: Test support for a marginal income tax increase.

But any budget deal now requires a three-fifths majority vote to pass, and that’s more difficult without the support of Republicans, who have pledged to use their newfound power to keep a lid on tax increases.

“They couldn’t get it done with their own majority,” Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson (R-Greenville) says of the Democrats, who control the Legislature and the governorship. “I don’t know how they expect to get it done with us in the room now.”

Wanted: political will

Former state Senator Art Berman, a longtime advocate for more education spending, says he believes HB750 could pass even in the overtime session—if legislative leaders had the political will to make it happen.

Berman suggests a structured roll call, in which leaders from both parties give rank-and-file lawmakers in politically safe districts a green light to vote for the bill, while those who potentially face challengers in the next election could vote “no” or simply “present.”

“When they’re done counting, my conclusion is there would be enough votes, even with a 3/5ths majority needed,” says Berman, noting that more and more school districts, including those in Republican areas, need more cash.

But political considerations have kept that scenario from happening, he adds. “It’s a tough sell for the Republican minority. They’d love to try and make Democrats put all their votes on 750 so in the next election they can target people in tough districts and say they voted for more taxes.”

Paul Green, professor of policy studies at Roosevelt University’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration, says this year’s acrimonious budget negotiations and the current stalemate are no surprise.

Legislators are quick to say they support education—until they have to find money for it, Green notes. And the governor “threw a monkey wrench” into the regular spring session by making universal health care, not education, his top priority.

“Everything became even more contentious, and that garnered a lot more attention,” Green says.

Finally, he adds, funding advocates don’t like to talk about the elephant in the room: Providing more money for schools “requires people with money to fund other people’s schools. Everyone’s afraid to say those words.” A so-called tax swap—higher income taxes in exchange for property tax relief, as in HB750— gets promoted “as a relatively painless solution, but you have to increase income taxes far more than you provide relief from property taxes. People don’t believe it’s really a swap,” Green believes.

The Com-Ed factor

Meanwhile, a budget proposal passed by the House at the end of the regular session would give roughly $400 million more to schools, raising per-pupil funding by $387, from $5,334 to $5,721. But the plan still hasn’t gone to the Senate for consideration because of political maneuvering between Senate President Emil Jones Jr., House Speaker Michael Madigan and other Democrats over the prospect of reinstating a rate freeze on Commonwealth Edison.

If Senate Democrats and Blagojevich approved Madigan’s proposal, it would keep Republicans out of the budget equation. But Jones says Madigan’s budget is inadequate. The governor’s aides say the proposal isn’t balanced and would force cuts in education funding.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich is pushing to revive his plan to sell or lease the state lottery. That plan was initially rolled out as a way to fund schools, but the governor is now pushing it as a way to pay down state pension debt.

Republicans leaders say they, too, want to see the state spend more money on schools. But they oppose new taxes and say Illinois will enjoy upwards of $1 billion in natural revenue growth in the next fiscal year.

“There’s $800 million in new money and we’ll work within the confines of that. But we’re not interested in a tax increase,” says House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Plainfield).

Cross appears to be in the catbird seat. Democrats in the House have 66 votes – five votes shy of a three-fifths majority. So if the Democrats do not agree to accept the budget engineered by Madigan, and Cross can hold his members together, the Republicans will have veto power over any overtime budget deal.

Senate Democrats have a three-fifths majority – plus a vote to spare. If they keep their ranks together, then the Senate Republicans may not have influence over any budget deal. Cross says he intends to keep fellow Republican Watson at the bargaining table, but Cross stops short of pledging to hold up a budget deal to protect Watson’s interests.

Legislators have until June 30, the end of the fiscal year, to come up with a budget. If necessary, they could implement a temporary budget to prevent interruption of state services while they keep negotiating over a final budget.

Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte contributed to this report