Maybe The Grand Bargain is coming together. Maybe there is really a chance that Illinois after 18 months will again have a budget and actually reform portions of how it does business.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recent visit to the News-Democrat was an exercise in caution compared to past visits — he would say little about political opponents or potential for change. In the past he has been almost strident in his opinions and prognostications, but it almost felt as if he were holding his breath and didn’t want to upset a delicate balance.
The Most Rev. Rauner stuck to the reform doctrine: no ad libbing or riffs off the sacred text.
Senate President John Cullerton and minority leader Sen. Christine Radogno have been working on a budget that includes a lot of moving parts, including workers comp reform, a property tax freeze, income tax hike and most recently a replacement for our broken school funding formula. That school formula is very important, but it is sort of scary adding such a big issue to the teetering tower that is The Grand Bargain.
One tiny Irishman from the shadow of Midway Airport could topple the whole thing. There are many who expect House Speaker Mike Madigan to do just that and force a state worker pay crisis June 30 in the hope that it spatters Rauner and sways the 2018 gubernatorial election back to the Democrats.
So much wreckage for such a petty goal. Our best hope is that the adults return to Springfield with enough votes to put us in a position to finally recover, grow our economy out of the fiscal woes and fix our school financing.
The bipartisan school funding proposal appears as if it will continue to increase the state’s share of school funding, but that means a $6 billion increase during the next decade to get to the 51 percent mark called for in the state constitution. It acknowledges that districts with greater poverty and more disabled students need more money. It would level the 20 percent funding gap between rich and poor school districts. It seeks to continue “hold harmless,” the practice of not taking from one district to enrich another.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be some carrots and sticks to get our 859 school districts consolidated to bring us from the extreme to the center of the national ranking for pupils per district. That would mean cutting the number of Illinois districts in half, which could save taxpayers $130 million to $170 million a year, plus cut $3 billion to $4 billion in pension costs over 30 years.
Here’s hoping the winds of change don’t topple this legislative Jenga tower.