The Illinois Senate is set to return to the Capitol on Sunday for a potential showdown over education funding amid questions whether Democrats can or will attempt to override Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a measure to overhaul how the state distributes money to schools.
Lawmakers are reconvening just days after Illinois hit a dubious milestone. For the first time, schools went without the state aid payments usually sent at the start of the academic year. Schools are expected to open on time anyway, but the pressure is on lawmakers to act before districts have to slash programs, cut hours or shut down.
The education checks didn’t go out because Democrats inserted a provision into the budget they approved over Rauner’s veto last month that prevents school money from being spent until a new “evidence-based” funding model is put in place. Democrats passed such a model in May and sent it to the governor two months later. But Rauner used his amendatory veto powers this month to rewrite large portions of the proposal.
Now, the Senate’s Sunday session could be a critical moment in the fight over education funding in Illinois. If senators choose to override Rauner, the bill will go to the House next, and the governor could be in danger of losing consecutive battles on two major issues: the state budget and school funding. In addition to an override, or if one fails, both parties could negotiate some kind of compromise proposal.
Democrats have said they won’t approve Rauner’s changes, and even some of the governor’s fellow Republicans this week have suggested they might not be able support his version of a new school funding formula.
For weeks prior to his veto, the governor promised his changes would focus on striking out provisions that earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for Chicago Public Schools, saying the legislation amounted to a “bailout” of the troubled system. The governor’s alterations also included changes that some independent government watchdogs found would result in hundreds of other Illinois districts losing money in future years.
That’s put Republicans who initially supported Rauner’s amendatory veto in a difficult spot. They don’t want to embrace changes that could hurt their local schools. But they also want to avoid splitting with the governor, who faced a very public rebuke in July when more than a dozen Republicans joined Democrats to advance a budget and tax hike over his objections.
Complicating matters is the absence of an analysis that could tell officials how Rauner’s rewrite would affect how much state money each of Illinois’ more than 850 school districts would receive. The Illinois State Board of Education this week pulled an initial study citing a “significant error.”
Without those numbers, “there will not be support for the (governor’s) amendatory veto,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Republican education negotiator from Bloomington. He said Rauner’s changes “went beyond” some Republicans’ expectations and “made people pause.”
“Even those who might look at it and determine there are good changes embedded in it, it gives them pause because there is too much unknown without numbers to back it up,” Barickman said.
Barickman said he’s now pushing for a new bill, calling the existing one “tainted.” He said it should aim to bring more fairness to the state’s school funding system and give Republicans something they could support in exchange for providing pension help for CPS. He said that could include lifting unfunded mandates for schools, or allowing school districts to limit collective bargaining — an idea long pushed by Rauner.
Finding enough common ground to forge a compromise could be difficult. Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill who sponsored the original education bill, said an agreement may be possible on mandate relief. However, he said changes to collective bargaining rights was a nonstarter. Manar filed a motion Friday to override Rauner in the hopes an agreement could be reached, but he said Democrats would be ready for an override vote if that effort failed.
“We are focused on the core of what we set out to do four years ago, which was end this rotten system and replace it with one that is adequate and equitable for all kids,” Manar said. “That is either going to happen because we override, or it’s going to get done because the Republicans embraced a reasonable path to compromise. But we are not going to start over with radical suggestions that get away from the core principles of (the bill).”
An override effort is expected to be easier in the Senate than the House, which is scheduled to return to Springfield on Wednesday — the same day Rauner and Republicans are set to hold their annual rally at the State Fair.
It would take 36 votes to override Rauner in the Senate, where there are 37 Democrats. The education bill received just 35 votes the first time around, but two Democrats were listed as not voting.
Republican Sen. Dale Righter of Mattoon, who joined Democrats to override Rauner on the budget and tax increase, said he was not willing to break ranks on this issue. Senate Democrats might not need Republicans to join in, but that’s not the case in the House.
It’ll take 71 votes to override Rauner in the House, where there are just 67 Democrats. If an override fails, lawmakers would be left to negotiate a new plan as schools wait. Republicans questioned the sincerity of talks, saying Democrats had called off formal meetings until Monday, the day after a potential override vote.
Rauner predicted during a Friday radio interview that lawmakers would be unable to override his veto. While he touted his changes, he repeated that he is “open to ideas.”
“I am open to compromise,” Rauner said on WLS-AM’s “Connected to Chicago,” which is scheduled to air on Sunday. “There is no one thing that has to be in the bill, but it needs to be fair for all children and all taxpayers.”
However, Rauner’s rewrite also could threaten a core item on his legislative and political agenda — his desire for a freeze on local property taxes.
Unlike in Democrats’ version of the funding bill, the governor would include the overall amount of property wealth in a school district as a factor to determine state aid, regardless of whether the schools can actually access it through taxes.
The less available property wealth that is in a district, the more state money it could receive. School districts can’t tax the growth of property values in tax-increment financing districts or in counties where tax levies are capped, but they still would receive less state money.
That means Rauner’s move could benefit school districts that sought referendums to increase their property taxes above the state-mandated tax cap. During a news conference on Monday, Rauner said “all the districts are treated in the same way under the amendatory veto I’m recommending.”
“What we’re doing is allocating state aid for schools. And how a specific community to chooses to handle their own property taxes, how they choose to fund their schools themselves, that’s up to them,” he said. “What we’re recommending is an equitable way to take the state aid and distribute it across the state in a fair sustainable way.”
Meanwhile, CPS officials took steps Friday to try to push back at the idea that they’re seeking a bailout from the state. The district announced that its proposed budget for next year will include $269 million in additional funding from the city. It’s unclear where that money will come from, given the city’s own financial woes.
The CPS budget proposal shows the district still is relying on an additional $300 million next year from the state, which relies on lawmakers overriding Rauner’s veto. But officials may be hoping to sway some lawmakers who may be on the fence by demonstrating the city is willing to take on more of a role in helping stabilize the district’s finances.
Rauner countered that by putting more money into CPS, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was “perpetuating a broken system.”
“It needs fundamental change, and that’s what I think my amendatory veto of SB1 does,” Rauner said in Friday’s radio interview. “It dramatically transforms the way schools are funded, it improves school funding, and I think over time we can support Chicago Public Schools more, just the way we are supporting other schools.”
Chicago Tribune’s Hal Dardick contributed.