Rauner signs bill to increase funding for schools

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner AP

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has approved legislation to increase state funding for education, providing relief to tapped-out school districts across the state.

The Republican signed a bill Wednesday that provides $269 million more to K-12 and early childhood education in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“Initially (this means) we will get our first general state aid payment in August,” said Brian Mentzer, assistant superintendent of Belleville District 201.

In his opinion, the most significant part of the bill is that it increases the proration from 89 percent to 92 percent. It is still less than the 100 percent the state should be paying districts in general state aid.

Superintendent Matt Klosterman of Belleville District 118 agreed with Mentzer’s assessment.

“Obviously a 3 percent increase is going to be huge for us. The proration has just been a killer,” he said.

Rauner said education is “the most important thing we do as a community.”

Rauner had proposed an increase of $344 million for education, though his spending plan also called for much larger cuts to social services and programs such as Medicaid health coverage for the poor than the budget bills Democrats sent to his desk.

Rauner has said he won’t approve Democrats’ full spending plan, which made smaller cuts to those programs but is more than $3 billion short of revenue.

But he says he signed the school-funding measure because schools shouldn’t be held jeopardized by the budget dispute.

“I refuse to allow (Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan) and the legislators he controls to hold our schools hostage as part of their plan to protect the political class and force a tax hike on the middle class without real reform,” Rauner said.

Klosterman said the increase is especially important to the Belleville elementary and middle school district, because the area’s equalized assessed valuation has been decreasing over the last four years. He said the more money a district gets from local taxes, the less state aid is received. In Belleville’s case, the decreasing assessed values should have meant increased state aid.

Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, commended Rauner.

“The governor showed us today that he is willing to put politics aside and make funding our schools a top priority,” Haine said. “We cannot mess around when it comes to funding our schools. I hope we can continue to be successful in working together to find common ground on the issues ahead of us, and continue to build a compassionate and competitive Illinois.”

Rauner wants Democrats to approve some of his legislative agenda — including measures to freeze property taxes and allow local governments to opt out of collective bargaining with public-employee unions — before he'll consider new revenue Democrats want to close the budget gap. Madigan and other Democrats have said the governor's priorities would hurt the middle class and the state's most vulnerable residents.

If Rauner and the General Assembly are unable to agree on a full budget deal by July 1, payments to social service agencies, state vendors and Medicaid providers will cease. Leaders of several Chicago-area agencies said Wednesday that could force them to cut off services such as cancer screening for poor people and assistance for disabled people.

School districts had feared that if the impasse extended into early August they wouldn't receive the state funding many rely on to open their doors and pay teachers. That possibility carried big political risk for Rauner and Democrats, who already have been pointing fingers over who should shoulder the blame in the event of a protracted fight.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Wednesday that the speaker’s office is reviewing Rauner’s action. He also criticized the reference to Madigan in Rauner’s statement as “just more extreme language.” Madigan has said the comments from Rauner and his press office haven’t helped negotiations.

Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, called the governor's signature “a good sign.”

“It shows that he may be ready to lean into governing by prioritizing the issues that matter to families across the state,” she said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol Tuesday, though there’s no indication that an agreement on the full state budget is near.

Belleville News-Democrat reporter Mary Cooley contributed to this report.