‘Compromise’ education bill, override fails in Illinois House

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SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House on Monday failed to pass a compromise school-funding measure, voting it down 46-61 after more than an hour of debate.

And within an hour the House failed to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s amendatory of veto of a Democratic-sponsored Senate bill, 63-45.

House Democrats planned to take up the compromise measure — filed in another bill — later Monday.

The compromise bill is thought to be a historic step forward for public-school funding statewide into sudden doubt. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative leaders had pledged support for the bill.

House Republicans had agreed to get 30 votes for the bi-partisan deal. But just 16 Democrats initially voted for the measure. While Rauner’s nemesis, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and his top deputies supported the compromise, the vote showed the speaker didn’t want the bill to pass as is. Instead, he called for an override of the initial Senate bill to show some Democrats that it would fail and to gain their support on the deal.

It was to have replaced an initial Democratic-sponsored school-funding bill that the governor vetoed on Aug. 1.

The compromise was reached after weeks of negotiations — and was struck as a way to get both Republicans and Rauner on board.

An override would have required Republican votes, and there have been no GOP lawmakers on record so far who have said they’d support an override.

Both the original and compromise school-funding bills are intended to put new money for education into the state’s poorest and neediest districts — and to try to ease the state’s reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools. The system has enabled wealthier communities to pump more money into public education while poor districts fall further behind.

But the compromise bill also includes a controversial $75 million private school scholarship and tax-credit program that critics have dubbed private-school “vouchers.” The lengthy bill, totaling some 550 pages, includes a hold-harmless provision to ensure schools don’t lose money; allows Chicago to raise its property-tax levy to pump more than $100 million in new money into teacher pensions, and also allows for property-tax relief for some school districts via referendum.

State Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, called the measure a way to “take the schoolchildren out of the line of fire.”

“We need to end the uncertainty,” Breen said. “This would be the first major education-funding compromise in decades.”

The vote came after a lengthy House Democratic caucus, with some members saying they couldn’t support the deal because of the private-school element. The tax credits are opposed by powerful teacher unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, that traditionally have supported Democratic lawmakers.

The tax-credit program was backed by Rauner, Republicans and Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago. It would provide tax credits for anyone who donates to organizations that would create scholarship funds for low- and mid-income students attending private schools.

At least for the next five years — when the measure will sunset — donors would get a credit for 75 cents on every dollar they give. Democrats estimated the program would provide scholarships for up to 6,000 students.

State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, voted “no” because she said the private school program should have warranted public meetings. “To me, this issue is too important,” she said.

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, was among the Republicans not on board with the measure, namely because of the inclusion of a potential bump in the property-tax levy for Chicago to pay its teacher pensions. The measure included language that would allow the Chicago City Council to raise the city’s property tax levy to bring in $120 million more in new tax dollars to pay for pensions.

But Chicago Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) said the City Council would enact a tax hike only as a last resort, as city homeowners and businesses are “pretty much at critical mass” after being hit with $838 million in property-tax increases to cover city-related pension costs. “Good business would require you to look at all other options before you go further into debt. It’s a last-case scenario,” O’Connor said.

Other Republicans supported the measure, calling it a bipartisan compromise that will help schools throughout the state.

Earlier Monday, Chicago’s school board president said he supported the bill, saying the benefit to Chicago Public Schools vastly outweighs a tax credit benefitting private schools. And CPS’ take from the compromise bill could total $450 million, said Frank Clark, whom Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed to head the Board of Education. For the third year in a row, CPS is depending on promised state funding to try to balance the budget that its board passed Monday afternoon.

Clark said he supports the details he’s heard about the compromise legislation, which includes the tax-credit program.

“I cannot in my own mind balance $75 million against the $450 million that CPS would benefit from, whether I agree or disagree with” the program, Clark said. Protesting that part “puts the whole deal in jeopardy.”

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

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