Thursday, March 11, 2010

Quinn takes his budget plan to school

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn is using his bully pulpit to try to get support for a tax increase that he says is needed to avoid deep cuts to education funding.

Quinn addressed students and teachers at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Springfield. He also visited James R. Lowell Elementary School in Chicago.

He called on voters to contact their legislators and ask them to support the 1 percentage point tax increase he proposed yesterday. “I think yesterday we made it pretty clear there’s a choice. There’s a fork in the road in Illinois. We’re going to take that particular road that leads to higher learning, better learning and children who succeed,” Quinn said at the Springfield school.

Quinn claims the new revenue is needed to replace about $1 billion in stimulus funds that will not be coming in next fiscal year.

“It was crystal clear that the votes are not there in the [U.S.] Congress to extend the federal stimulus for education. It’s not going to happen. … When I came back to Illinois [from Washington, D. C.], I told our budget people we can’t write that in. We will not have a billion dollars that was very helpful to us in the past fiscal year, the one we’re in now,” he said.

Quinn also called on Republican’s to support pension reforms that he claims will generate $300 million in savings next fiscal year. “We expect [House Minority] Leader [Tom] Cross to help us out there. He said he’s for it. Let’s put the votes on it.”

Quinn spokesperson, Robert Reed said that Quinn plans to fund education at the same levels as the current fiscal year if his proposed tax increase passes. If it doesn’t, he is proposing $1.3 billion in cuts to education. Some of the $2.8 billion that Quinn estimates the increase would produce would also go toward the approximately $850 million in bills the state owes schools, according to the State Board of Education. After education funding is restored and the bills paid off, about $650 million would be left over. Quinn is tight-lipped about where that money would go.

Yesterday Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, said that all the revenue from the proposed tax increase would go to education. But, some are speculating that at least part of it may be used to avoid the controversial $300 million reduction in funds to local governments that Quinn proposed yesterday.

When asked about this possibility, Quinn would not give a direct answer. “When you look at yesterday’s budget, every entity would have to make sacrifices,” he said.

While Quinn says he is optimistic that his tax proposal can pass, legislators and some providers waiting on late payments from the state are not so sure.

Don Moss, coordinator of the Human Services Coalition, said he is not expecting a tax increase until at least November, and he is not certain that it will come even after the general election. He said the governor's proposed cuts on top of the state’s slow payment cycle would be more than many social services providers could bear.

“They could probably deal with the cuts. But coupled with the late payments, it will probably do a lot of them in,” he said.

He said borrowing is the only solution for now. “If somebody has got to borrow, it should be the state not providers,” Moss said. “It’s 1 percent [interest rate] versus 5 percent or 6 percent and lets the state be responsible.”

Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the State Board of Education, said schools have to start considering the possibility of cuts now. Teachers must be notified of layoffs 60 days before the end of this school year.

“If they’re going to reduce staff, they have to do it by the end of this month,” he said. Vanover added that teachers who have received layoff notices could be called back if the money is there for their jobs next school year.

Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the reality of possible education cuts will hit home for people once the layoff notices go out at the end of the month.

He said that he doesn't think Quinn's proposal is political gamesmanship, as many legislators have characterized it. He said that because education spending makes up such a large portion of the budget, Quinn doesn't have much option but to cut it. “It’s the largest chunk left that I think he could go after.”

He added that stimulus funds did protect schools from large cuts last year. Really the stimulus money did fill that hole."

Comerford said that education cannot bear the proposed cuts without some serious consequences, such as overcrowded classrooms. “The problem isn’t where you can cut. We’ve cut as far as we can cut…We need new revenue,” he said. “Right now instead of talking about what we can improve, we are talking about trying to hold on to what we have.”


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