CPS budget hanging in the balance

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SPRINGFIELD, Dec. 14—In the coming weeks, Chicago Public Schools faces two possible scenarios: Reap tens of millions in state funding—or, in a worst-case development, face the prospect of mid-year budget cuts.

Lawmakers in coming weeks may consider House Speaker Michael Madigan’s proposal to expand gambling and generate $1 billion in state revenue, primarily to support a statewide capital infrastructure plan and possibly also to bail out Chicago-area mass transit.

Any capital plan is likely to include dollars for schools, which have gone begging for additional construction dollars since the state’s school construction plan ran out of money in 2004. Lawmakers have considered a number of capital plans in recent years, all of which included a school construction component.

Rep. David Miller, a Dolton Democrat whose district stretches from Chicago’s South Side to suburban Ford Heights, says he can’t imagine a capital plan that does not cover schools. He adds that dollars must be allocated both for new construction and repairs of aging facilities.

“Although CPS makes arguments for clearly state-of-the-art schools downtown, they can’t be at the expense of those on the South Side and southland area,” Miller says. “Those schools and children deserve everything just as much as new dollars going toward new construction.”

CPS currently has $5 billion in unmet capital needs, according to a district spokesperson. (For stories on capital needs in Chicago Public Schools, see Catalyst Chicago, May/June 2007.)

Beyond funding for mass transit and infrastructure, Madigan’s proposal would also generate $300 million for education, to be used to reduce class sizes, hire reading or math specialists, or hire elementary and middle school counselors. At least $60 million of that is slated for CPS.

Despite the high stakes, there is little optimism in Springfield that leaders will succeed in passing a deal by the end of the year. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has called nearly 20 special sessions since the regular spring session expired on May 31, and lawmakers each time moved no closer to compromise with each other or with the governor.

“What I’m anticipating is that the speaker is gonna pass a plan out, and then the Senate might pass another plan out and we’re right back where we are right now,” says Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski (R-Sycamore), assistant minority leader and a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Then again, last week’s federal indictment of Chris Kelly, a close Blagojevich friend and the governor’s former campaign finance chairman and adviser on gambling matters, promises to make any push for more gambling an especially sensitive affair. Kelly was indicted on tax fraud charges related to gambling debts.

Madigan had planned to convene the House this week to vote on his plan, but cancelled the session after the charges against Kelly were filed. The Senate also does not intend to meet this week.

Waiting on the governor

Meanwhile, a crucial deadline for school funding is on the horizon. Jan. 4 is “D-Day” for a 2007-08 budget implementation bill, which raises the state’s foundation level by $400 per pupil and allow the Illinois State Board of Education to release $617 million earmarked for schools, an increase of $315 million over last year. The foundation level will increase to $5,734 from $5,334.

Overall, CPS stands to get just under $147 million from the state, according to ISBE data.

Legislators passed the bill and sent it to Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Nov. 5, but it remains in limbo on the governor’s desk. Blagojevich has said nothing about the measure, other than that he is “looking at it.”(The measure covers other matters besides education funding.) The governor may sign it into law or simply ignore it, in which case it automatically becomes law on Jan. 4. If he uses his veto power to amend any part of it, the entire measure will go back to lawmakers, who would need to decide whether to override that veto. If lawmakers can’t agree whether to accept or override the governor’s changes, they would need to begin anew with another plan.

If the bill doesn’t become law, it would be “a disaster,” says Pedro Martinez, director of the CPS Department of Management and Budget. A worst-case scenario might include mid-year budget cuts, since the district would not get any of the additional state funds that officials took into consideration when crafting the budget.

“There’s no way we could continue what we’re doing now,” Martinez says.

Passing and enacting the budget implementation bill is typically a mere formality carried out in conjunction with passage of the state’s budget. But the political feud that raged all year between Blagojevich, Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones—all Democrats—has dominated matters large and small at the Capitol. Action on major initiatives has all but come to a standstill amid posturing and tit-for-tat games.

With all the acrimony, lawmakers failed to restore myriad grants Blagojevich vetoed from the budget in August, including a number of grants to schools. The governor specifically nixed grants secured by Madigan and House Democrats, while preserving grants sought by his ally Jones and other Senate Democrats. Madigan pushed to restore the grants, but Jones blocked that effort.

The grants could be restored in any capital plan brokered this year, but it’s not clear whether Blagojevich would allow that.

The legislative timetable effectively starts over on Jan. 1 and that means Madigan has an incentive to run out the clock. Come Jan. 1, it takes only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate to approve most bills. Before then, it takes a three-fifths majority vote because lawmakers are in overtime. Madigan could advance his gambling plan without a single Republican vote, for instance, come January.

Aaron Chambers is Catalyst’s Springfield correspondent. To reach him, send an e-mail to editorial@catalyst-chicago.org.