Illinois lawmakers set to vote on stopgap spending deal

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Posted: Jun 30, 2016 2:04 AM
Illinois lawmakers set to vote on stopgap spending deal

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois lawmakers plan votes Thursday on a stopgap spending deal that would ensure schools open in August and would fund state services for the next six months, but it won't end the ideological divide that led to the yearlong budget standoff.

After days of negotiations, lawmakers said Wednesday that Democratic leaders and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner have crafted a plan expected to be brought up for votes on the House and Senate floors Thursday, one day before the current fiscal year ends. The deal would bring certainty to schools and relief to cash-strapped colleges and social service providers. But it also means the state will enter a second fiscal year without a full spending plan in place, setting up a high-stakes November election that will influence budget discussions in January.

Aides to Rauner and the Democratic leaders were not commenting on the proposal Wednesday evening. But Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago lawmaker involved in the budget negotiations, said she was "cautiously optimistic there's a deal."

Sen. Pam Althoff, a Republican from the Chicago suburb of McHenry, said the deal would fund operations for six months while financing elementary and secondary education for a full school year.

There would be a $485 million increase for K-12 schools over the current year, she said. The plan includes the $235 million general increase the Republican governor proposed and a $250 million "equity" grant to help schools with low-income students. Chicago would get $100 million of the equity grant funding, said GOP Sen. Dave Syverson of Rockford.

Syverson said the plan would not be a "bailout" for the Chicago Public Schools, which Rauner has opposed, because it's part of a broader package of money to fight poverty across the state.

"There's no procedure to bail out Chicago because we're increasing the poverty money which ... helps every district," Syverson said.

Part of the deal includes passing legislation to allow Chicago to raise $250 million in property taxes to help with teacher pension payments, according to two state officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agreement is not finalized.

The officials said the deal contains a proposal to have the state cover future pension costs beginning in June, like it does for all other Illinois school districts, but only if lawmakers pass legislation to reform the overall pension system.

Rauner and Democrats who control the Legislature never did agree on a budget plan for the fiscal year now ending, although Rauner signed legislation to keep schools open and road construction moving — major functions of state government that won't continue July 1 without an agreed-upon blueprint.

The emerging plan calls for a $673 million increase for human services programs, including $20 million to restore programs that Rauner suggested eliminating, Althoff said.

There is also $1 billion for colleges and universities — about 85 percent of what they received the last time the state approved higher-education funding. Public universities limped along all year without state funding. The plan is to give those hardest hit — Eastern Illinois University, Western Illinois University and Chicago State University — an extra funding boost after they document their funding woes, Syverson said.

The proposal comes as public pressure continued to mount for ending the gridlock. About a dozen Illinois newspapers used their front pages Wednesday to publish editorials demanding that the two sides strike a deal.

Steans said it was "incredibly positive" that Rauner and legislative leaders were able to come to an agreement but that she still viewed the developments as "a glass half full."

"I still think it's just a stopgap and it's not a final solution," she said.

For 18 months, Rauner has demanded business-friendly, union-weakening laws as a condition for agreeing to a spending plan that would include a tax hike. Democrats say the governor's initiatives would hurt middle-class families and have nothing to do with the budget.

Wednesday marked the first time lawmakers were in session since they adjourned their spring session May 31.