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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011 02:37 pm

Would‘unveto fix regional supts. mess?

Gov. Pat Quinn
Way back in 1981, Gov. Jim Thompson got into a fight with the Illinois General Assembly over who should fund the salaries of county state’s attorneys.

By law, Illinois was on the hook for two-thirds of those salaries. Thompson originally proposed paying all of the state’s share, then decided that locals should pick up the tab and not the state. The General Assembly negotiated a deal with the governor to pay 80 percent of the required funding. But Thompson turned around and vetoed the entire appropriation.

The state’s attorneys all of a sudden weren’t getting a paycheck and threatened to sue, county governments were enraged at having this financial hardship dumped on them and the General Assembly worked itself into an uproar over Thompson’s decision to break their deal.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Thompson made an unprecedented move and simply declared that he’d “unvetoed” the appropriation. Democratic Comptroller Roland Burris announced that he would recognize the “unveto” as legitimate and go ahead and pay the state’s attorneys’ salaries.

The premise was that since the General Assembly had not convened since the original veto and, therefore, hadn’t yet entered Thompson’s veto into the record as received, the original appropriation veto wasn’t completely official. The state’s attorneys were paid and all was forgotten.

Does this sound familiar to you?

It should.

Gov. Pat Quinn has put himself into the same trick box as Big Jim did all those years ago.

Quinn has tried to get rid of state funding for regional superintendents of schools for at least the past two years.

There are good arguments on both sides of this issue. The regional superintendents say they are mandated by the state to carry out a long list of specific statutory duties. Some districts find their work highly beneficial.

Another argument is that the superintendents are a needless layer of bureaucracy. When Cook County’s regional superintendent was abolished, hardly anybody noticed the difference, except for the money saved.

Quinn’s position is that regardless of whether these superintendents are needed or not, local taxpayers ought to be picking up the tab for their salaries. They are local elected officials, after all. And, like countywide state’s attorneys, they ought to be paid for with local cash so the state can concentrate on using its resources elsewhere, especially since federal education funding has drastically declined since President Barack Obama’s stimulus program ended.

But, once again, Quinn lost the argument with the General Assembly. The legislature provided $11.3 million in state funding for the salaries of regional superintendents and their operating budgets.

Then, in a surprise move, Quinn vetoed all that state funding out of the budget.

No regional school superintendents have been paid since the state’s fiscal year began July 1. The uproar has been as loud as it was predictable.

So, it may be no surprise to learn that a Thompsonesque unveto “solution” is now being pushed by some folks to solve the crisis that Quinn created. Quinn, some say, should just realize he made a mistake and undo his veto.

The push comes after the latest plan to resolve the situation fell flat on its face.

The Quinn administration wanted the Illinois State Board of Education to use its personnel budget to pay the regional superintendent salaries. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka agreed to pay the salaries through the board if the deal could be cut, but the State Board refused, worried that it might not be legal and that even if it was, the General Assembly wouldn’t replenish their already slashed personnel budget when the legislature reconvenes this fall.

Nobody really expects Quinn to follow Thompson’s footsteps, however. Unlike Quinn, Thompson was never accused of being a chronic flip-flopper. And despite Thompson’s established precedent, Quinn would be mercilessly hammered in the media for making such a move. Plus, even with all the flipping and the flopping, Quinn absolutely hates to admit to being wrong.

The governor said last week that he was still looking for a way out of the problem, preferably through local funding. But that may have to wait until the late October legislative session. It’s a heck of a long time to live without a paycheck.  

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