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Thursday, March 25, 2010 01:45 pm

Quinn can’t blame feds for education hole

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Gov. Pat Quinn answers questions from pupils at Jefferson Middle School March 10, following his proposal of a tax increase for education.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

I’m going to tell you right up front that this is a column about the state budget and involves a little math.

Wait! Don’t move on to the next story. I know this can get a bit tedious. But the math is easy and the story itself tells us a lot about how this state is being governed.

I decided to write about this when Gov. Pat Quinn appeared on public television’s “Chicago Tonight” show last week and was grilled hard by hosts Phil Ponce and Carol Marin.

The governor did his best to deflect some very tough questions about his budget and other topics. Many of the questions seemed to come right from one of my previous columns, by the way.

One thing the interviewers returned to again and again was how Quinn’s proposed budget cuts over a billion dollars from education spending. The governor wants to stop those cuts with a one percentage point income tax surcharge. Quinn has warned that, without a tax hike, the schools would suffer. Thousands of teacher layoffs would result. Kids would be put into ever-more crowded classrooms.

The governor kept explaining that the federal government was primarily to blame. The state got about a billion dollars from the U.S. government’s stimulus program last year to fund schools, but that cash won’t be forthcoming again this year, and now there’s a crisis.

Blaming Washington, D.C., is always fun, but his comments were misleading at best. Quinn and the General Assembly actually did cut state education funding last year, and that’s why we have a problem now.

The truth is that federal education dollars were used to replace existing state funding last year.

Here’s what they did.

First, the schools budget was cut by about a billion state dollars and then the hole was immediately refilled with about a billion federal dollars. Quinn and the General Assembly essentially put that federal money into the state’s permanent spending base, instead of using it to supplement what the state already was spending.

And now, with the federal school program ending, that billion-dollar education budget hole has reappeared.

The absolute worst part about this whole thing is Quinn and everybody else knew last year that the federal stimulus program was a temporary, one-shot deal. They knew what the consequences would be if the economy didn’t turn around quickly and state revenues began to grow again. Instead, the economy may have since bottomed out, but unemployment is still rising and state tax revenues have continued to plunge.

This time, Quinn’s plan is to fill that hole yet again with a one percentage point income tax surcharge.

What they did last year is pretty much what the state does with Lottery proceeds. Instead of increasing dollars to schools, Lottery cash (which is about $650 million a year) just frees up money so it can be spent on the rest of the budget.

Despite all this, it’s tough not to blame Quinn for pulling that little fiscal trick last year. The budget was such an intense, unprecedented disaster, and not enough political will existed to increase taxes, that Quinn and the other leaders – Democrats as well as Republicans – were looking for anything they could do to keep the government afloat.

While some did call for big cuts last year, particularly the Republicans, even they blinked when reality started hitting home. It was the Senate Republican leader, after all, who demanded that money be found somehow, some way (without a tax increase, of course) to fund human service providers last summer when the prospect of providers going out of business became an all too clear reality. So, pulling the switcheroo with that federal school money was an easy target. They did what they had to do to get through the crisis.

No matter the reasons or the excuses, this year’s education hole is the governor’s fault, shared with the General Assembly. And it’s entirely misleading to blame the feds for this current calamity with school funding. They did it to themselves.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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