State has a budget, but where are the reforms?

Focus shifts to education funding

MORRISON – The state finally has a budget, but the fundamental reforms that were supposed to accompany it never came.

State Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia, and state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, were at the Morrison Farm Bureau on Friday for another Coffee and Conversation session with their constituents. While the GOP lawmakers were relieved to have a budget, neither voted for this particular version.

Ten Republicans voted for the 658-page budget in the House, while one GOP lawmaker crossed the aisle in the Senate.

"I believe those 10 folks were misled," McCombie said. "This budget isn't balanced, and it doesn't address pension liabilities."

McCombie, a former Savanna mayor, said she would have been willing to wait it out a little longer.

"We still would have had a tax increase, but we would have had real reforms," McCombie said.

The budget includes a 32 percent income tax increase, from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent. McCombie is a co-sponsor for a bill to repeal the tax hike.

She said it was frustrating to watch bipartisan efforts to negotiate a deal be tossed to the wayside at the last minute.

"When Speaker [Michael] Madigan knew he had enough votes, he submitted his own bill and 14 hours of good-faith negotiations stopped," McCombie said.

Anderson said the state is in a perilous situation without the reforms pushed by Gov. Bruce Rauner during the budget process.

"The state is in rough shape, and it will continue to be until we bring reforms to the way it does business," Anderson said. "We must completely change how we spend tax dollars."

The clock is ticking on the most pressing reform measure in the General Assembly. Education funding is the last unfinished piece of the new budget. Senate Bill 1 has Democratic lawmakers at odds with the governor. If a new formula isn't approved before the school year starts, the state's money for education can't be spent.

The biggest sticking point is that SB1 includes $450 million for what the Republicans call a bailout of Chicago Public Schools. They argue that the Chicago schools already get a disproportionate amount of the state's education funding, and years of inadequate funding of pensions is to blame for its dire financial situation.

"I agree with the funding formula, but I'm not willing to give Chicago our tax dollars for their pensions," Anderson said.

McCombie said the categorical payments, which fund things like school transportation and special education, are also unfairly distributed in Chicago's favor.

Many superintendents are pushing for SB1 for the funding formula changes, and hoping it can be tweaked later. The lawmakers said they must hold out for a finished product.

"We'll never see a trailer bill to change SB1, so we have to fight for it right now," McCombie said.

Higher education, including the Monetary Assistance Award financial assistance program, have been funded.

Anderson said he has an idea that would go a long way in fixing the state's spending problems, but calls it a pipe dream.

"It would be great if we could fully fund public safety, education and Medicaid before finding money for anything else, but we'll never see it happen because of politics," Anderson said.

McCombie said her most pressing areas of spending reform would be pensions, workers' compensation and weeding out government agency inefficiencies.

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