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National Editorial & Columnists

SPRINGFIELD SCOOP: School reform approved, but not the money to fund it

Budgetary time bomb will blast finances in future

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois General Assembly recently passed a measure that lays the foundation for one of the largest tax hikes in the state’s history.

Or, it could lay the foundation for massive future deficit spending.

Or, maybe, it’s a precursor for substantial spending cuts to fund schools. (I’m not holding my breath on that one.)

But regardless, lawmakers passed a measure mandating that during the next decade, an additional $19.2 billion go toward schools. But the measure does not say where the state will get the money.

And the money has to come from somewhere, unless, of course, they are making a promise that won’t be kept.

Don’t get me wrong. Deciding how much money schools receive is a legitimate public policy decision. But here is what is not legitimate: not designating a way to pay for the increased spending.

You probably haven’t heard or read much about this fiscal quandary. It is one of the most underreported aspects of Senate Bill 1, a measure that reforms how the state funds public schools.

While there are positive aspects to Senate Bill 1, its most problematic aspects are that it creates a budgetary time bomb for future governors and lawmakers and that it makes a promise to the children and educators of this state without providing a means of paying for it.

Sadly, this is business as usual in Springfield.

Politicians are like teenagers with credit cards. They think it’s a lot more fun to spend money than to figure out how to pay for it.

Legislators like the accolades they receive when they spend on something “nice.” But since they don’t like to make people angry by raising taxes or making other difficult decisions, they often don’t designate a way to pay for the spending.

The state has overspent year after year and it has done this by short-changing long-term obligations such as pensions and short-term responsibilities like paying water, sewer and electric bills for the Capitol.

In fairness to Gov. Bruce Rauner, he, at first, used his amendatory veto pen to scratch out portions of the measure he didn’t like, including the mandatory future funding increases. But he could see the writing on the wall.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature was going to override his veto. And some Republicans were waffling on whether to support the governor or follow House Speaker Mike Madigan’s lead. They feared that schools wouldn’t stay open if the measure wasn’t passed.

So negotiations began between Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.

A compromise was reached that pretty much left the original bill intact but provided an additional $75 million a year in tax credits for some students attending private schools, a program Rauner likes.

So Rauner, along with a majority of members of the General Assembly, signed off on the revised bill. It’s still a lousy plan.

Oh, and by the way, a revenue stream hasn’t been designated to pay for the $75 million in private school tax credits, either. The state could borrow more to cover that cost. But Illinois needs more debt the same way that Houston needs more rain.

Is it asking too much of those we elect to at least find a way to pay for the commitments they make? The means of funding ought to be debated at the same time as the plan to spend.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.

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