SPRINGFIELD — School districts across Illinois could be facing an expensive double-whammy when it comes to state funding.
Not only did the $33.7 billion spending plan approved by lawmakers Thursday cut general state aid to schools by $161 million, but it remains unknown whether the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn will move forward with a plan to shift the cost of teacher pensions from the state to local school districts.
In the coming weeks, both issues will be in the spotlight as Quinn considers whether to sign the budget plan and lawmakers return to the Capitol to continue debating how to overhaul a pension system that is $83 billion out of whack.
Members of the House and Senate left town last week having made some of the toughest votes in recent years. They cut Medicaid benefits, raised the cigarette tax and approved a budget slashing spending at many state agencies.
The proposed new state budget is slightly higher than the current spending plan. But, that’s because Medicaid costs and the state’s pension payment are on the rise.
“Even though we cut more from last year, the total budget was actually higher because of the pension payment,” said state Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan.
Some last-minute scrambling helped put some additional money into school funding. An initial version of the budget cut education dollars by more than $250 million over the current fiscal year. The budget that went to Quinn contains about $211 million fewer dollars for schools than in fiscal year 2012.
The general state aid reduction means schools will get about 89 percent of what they normally would receive for each of their pupils.
“While this is a significant reduction, it is not as bad as we had feared it could possibly be, given the dynamics of the final days of session,” state School Superintendent Christopher Koch said Monday.
Debate over the education budget reductions was impassioned for some lawmakers.
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, pleaded with her colleagues to avoid general state aid cut to schools, which will have a major impact on school districts with low property values and high numbers of low-income students.
“We’re not helping the teachers. They’re in overcrowded classrooms. There’s no support system,” Lightford said.
In the House, Democrats and Republicans worked together for most of the spring to craft a budget that stayed under a self-imposed cap. The alliance splintered in the final days of the session because of disagreements over pensions and the budget.
Like Lightford, Verschoore said he wished there was a way to avoid the spending reductions.
“I feel like some of the cuts were a little draconian,” he said.
In addition to reducing general state aid to schools, the Early Childhood Block Grant program was cut by about $25 million, potentially leaving thousands of children with fewer preschool options.
Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy group, said the budget also reduces spending on other child care subsidy programs, as well as a children’s mental health assistance program.
In a memo to its members, the organization suggests the General Assembly look for new ways to finance programs.
“It’s critical that policymakers continue considering alternate funding sources to further mitigate harmful cuts and restore balance to the budget process,” the memo notes.
In the final hours of the spring session, the Senate approved tax hikes affecting satellite television providers and oil companies as a way to raise money for schools.
Neither of the tax increases was taken up by the House before it adjourned.
The governor’s budget office signaled Monday that it supports the Senate tax increase proposal.
“We feel strongly that Illinois residents want to protect and invest in education and while the House budget makes reductions in this area, the Senate passed an amendment to maintain the FY12 funding level for this area,” said Kelly Kraft, spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.