When the Illinois State Senate passed the school funding compromise Tuesday, state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, was in the room. But he didn’t press the buttons for Yes or No; he voted “present.”
Clayborne, who is the Senate majority leader, voted yes on the original school funding bill, including in favor of overriding governor. However the House passed a compromise version, which included $75 million in tax credits for people who donate money to private schools for financial need-based scholarships.
The tax credit plan was criticized by teachers groups as diverting public money away from public schools, and toward private schools, which charge tuition.
The corresponding state representatives in Clayborne’s senate district — State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, and State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis — were split in how they voted on the compromise school funding bill. Hoffman voted yes, Greenwood voted no.
“I’m happy we have a formula in place now,” Greenwood said. “It’s not all I would have liked in the formula, (but) it’s a good start.”
Clayborne, Hoffman and Greenwood all voted to override the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 1, which did not include the tax credit provision.
Why Clayborne didn’t voice his opinion on the compromise legislation, which was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday, is not known. Clayborne didn’t return phone calls seeking comment and typically does not talk to the News-Democrat.
However, the 2018 election may have something to do with it.
I’m happy we have a formula in place now. It’s not all I would have liked in the formula, (but) it’s a good start.
State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis
Clayborne is up for re-election in 2018. In 2014 he defeated Republican Katherine Ruocco by only a couple thousand votes — 30,624 to 28,486.
Now Republican political newcomer Tanya Hildenbrand, an Air Force reservist, is already campaigning to oust Clayborne.
Leadership on both sides most likely knew how many votes they had and senators they would want to protect to get to the necessary 36 votes, said Kent Redfield, a longtime Illinois political observer. The bill received 38 votes in the Senate.
“It could be a personal decision on the part of a legislator that ‘I’m going to vote present, I’m not going to vote against it, but I’m not going to help pass it,’” Redfield said.
Those who are protected by present votes may be in a tough election in the future.
“A Democrat would need teachers’ union endorsement in general,” Redfield said. “The leadership, on both sides, would go to a member and say, ‘We don’t need your vote on this, even though you think overall this is what the state ought to do.”
Teachers union groups, which have been among the financial supporters of Clayborne since 1995, were among those to voice opposition to the tax credit plan, and urged for an override of Rauner’s veto of Senate Bill 1.
“To be able to explain the vote, to be able to communicate with the voters, he needs the support of the education unions in order to have enough money to get that message out,” Redfield said.
A Democrat would need teachers’ union endorsement in general. The leadership, on both sides, would go to a member and say, ‘We don’t need your vote on this, even though you think overall this is what the state ought to do.’
Kent Redfield, Illinois political observer
Since 1995, Clayborne has received at least $72,000 from teacher unions or other education-related associations, such as the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Belleville High School Federation of Teachers, Cahokia Federation of Teachers, and the Illinois School Administrators Political Action Committee, according to data from the State Board of Elections.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers advocated for the override of the SB1 veto, and against the compromise version with the scholarship tax credits, said Aviva Bowen, director of communications for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
Bowen added the IFT did not try to lobby specific legislators on how it felt on the education funding plan with the tax credits.
“Our approach was the same across the board,” Bowen said. “IFT staff, local leaders and members encouraged all lawmakers to override Gov. Rauner’s veto of SB1. ... We believe the compromise bill does a lot to treat our poorest students and communities more fairly, but it came at a very disappointing cost for which Rauner is to blame.”
Democrats are facing off against a party that has Republican Rauner at the top of the ticket, who has put $50 million into his own campaign fund. Rauner also has received a $20 million donation from billionaire hedge fund founder Ken Griffin.
In 2014, the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee helped Clayborne’s Republican opponent Ruocco with more than $19,000 in in-kind contributions for printing. The Illinois Republican Party paid for more than $6,900 worth of printing costs as well, according to state board of elections records.
We believe the compromise bill does a lot to treat our poorest students and communities more fairly, but it came at a very disappointing cost for which Rauner is to blame.
Illinois Federation of Teachers director of communications
Because of Rauner’s money, the Senate Republicans got outspent by Senate Democrats, but not as much as usual.
“If he (Clayborne) had a close election in an off year, and now we’re going to another off year, Republicans probably have more money to spread around than they did four years ago,” Redfield said.
State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, who voted against the school funding compromise, said Clayborne may have been getting pressure from unions to oppose the measure because of the scholarship tax credits.
“They even came to me,” McCarter said, adding he wouldn’t tell groups how he planned to vote before a roll call.
“I think that was probably it, otherwise it’s the Democrats’ bill,” McCarter added.
Cahokia School District 187 Superintendent Art Ryan said there has been a lot of speculation about how the private school scholarship tax credits would work, but acknowledged people may fear it would be the beginning of a slippery slope of leading to a private school voucher program.
He said there would be concerns about public money going to private schools that could charge tuition, and schools that can pick and choose their students.
“There’s concern about where this could go,” Ryan said. “It’s human nature to take something and assume it will be the worst nightmare.”