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Thursday, April 28, 2016 12:20 am

Blog post temporarily breaks stalemate

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
A blog post appears to have helped at least temporarily break the long stalemate at the Illinois Statehouse.

Rep. Mike Fortner (R-West Chicago) wrote up a story and I posted it on my blog (http://CapitolFax.com) last Monday about a way to provide some funding for higher education. Universities and community colleges haven’t received a dollar from the state since June of last year because the government has no budget. Some are on the verge of actually going under.

Fortner’s idea wasn’t new. Some other folks, particularly at the endangered Eastern Illinois University, have been saying for a while now that money is just sitting in a state account and isn’t being used for its intended purpose. Budget negotiators have also been eyeing the fund.

But, for whatever reason, Fortner’s proposal took off like a rocket. It probably helped that the Republican legislator devised the plan with a Democrat from the Senate, Pat McGuire of Joliet.

The governor’s folks almost immediately embraced Fortner’s concept, which gives higher education hundreds of millions of dollars to tide the schools over until tuition money starts coming in. The money comes from the Education Assistance Fund, which receives dedicated tax revenues and is split between K-12 and higher education.

Rep. Fortner’s proposal also included giving universities “relief from some of the procurement code.” Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he wants to redo some of the reforms enacted after Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment, and has made it part of his otherwise controversial “Turnaround Agenda.” But while those earlier procurement reforms have, indeed, created problems at universities and in state government, House Speaker Michael Madigan has resisted changing them. Legitimate fears of history repeating itself after the Blagojevich scandals is cited as the main reason.

Rauner won’t negotiate a budget until he passes his Turnaround Agenda. So, good news came when Rauner decided not to tie his procurement reform demands to the passage of Fortner’s funding plan. And then more good news came when top Democrats started openly talking about “building a bridge” to next fiscal year, which begins July 1. They can’t pay the state’s obligations without a lot more revenue, and they can’t raise taxes without an agreement on the Turnaround Agenda. So, they wanted to try and prevent a systemic meltdown in the meantime.

The imminent closure of Chicago State University at the end of April, the severe problems faced by several social service providers (including Catholic Charities), the possibility that the legislature might not fund K-12 schools this year, the state comptroller’s decision to delay issuing legislative paychecks for two months and the looming week-long legislative Passover break all combined to create an extreme sense of urgency.

Things are starting to look up elsewhere, too.

Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks’ proposed constitutional amendment to reform the redistricting process sailed out of committee last week. Franks pledged to include some changes suggested by (who else?) Rep. Fortner and the Illinois Chamber supports it, which possibly indicates where the Rauner folks are.

Ending gerrymandering is part of the governor’s Turnaround Agenda. Speaker Madigan once called redistricting reform a “plot” by Republicans. Yet, he’s supporting Franks’ proposal.

Meanwhile, significant progress is being made in negotiations behind the scenes on workers’ compensation reform, one of Gov. Rauner’s top priorities. People close to Madigan admitted late last week that some reasonable procurement reforms could be achieved.

We’re not out of the woods yet. Finding a way to finally end this disgraceful impasse will be far more difficult than tapping an unused state fund. And, heck, even that wasn’t easy. Negotiations were heated, attempts were made at the eleventh hour to pry even more spending out of Rauner, things broke down time and time again and Speaker Madigan ended the week with a nasty shot across Rauner’s bow.

“Time will tell,” Madigan said via press release, “if Governor Rauner has further intentions of destroying our state institutions and human service providers, or if he will begin working with us to craft a full-year budget that is not contingent on passage of his demands that will destroy the middle class.”

Rauner is almost always quick to respond in kind to these sorts of statements by Madigan. This time, though, he let it go.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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