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As clock ticks, future of Illinois state budget up in air

The Illinois State Capitol Building / AP file photo

SPRINGFIELD — With a little more than 24 hours to go in the regular legislative session, Illinois House lawmakers on Tuesday said they were closer to voting on legislation to reshape how the state funds public education — but the future of a comprehensive budget deal remained up in the air.

Besides taking steps to address the huge funding shortfall in Chicago’s public schools and reform school funding statewide, House lawmakers voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour statewide and sell the Thompson Center state office building — but final action on all those items was far from assured.

It’s clear that funding for Chicago Public Schools may again become a major point of contention as the clock ticks.

Meanwhile, legislators made no major headway on a plan to fund state government long-term, raising the ire of protesters — some of whom had walked all the way from Chicago — who say the lack of a budget is hurting the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Democrat-controlled House and Senate seemed to align the political stars to get education-funding legislation passed through their respective chambers before the Legislature heads into its overtime session on Thursday, when a three-fifths majority will be required to pass bills rather than a simple majority.

But any school funding fix would need approval from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has rejected the idea of a Chicago Public Schools bailout unless larger fixes to curb the cost of government pensions and other reforms can be reached.

And even though the minimum-wage hike seems virtually assured to be sent to Rauner’s desk, he isn’t expected to support the measure, arguing it would be bad for the state’s business environment. The governor’s office said he would “carefully review” the legislation.

All this played out during a raucous day inside a Capitol filled with protesters upset that a state budget deal seems unlikely to be reached by the Wednesday night deadline for the regular legislative session. Some were dragged by security while shouting at lawmakers in the House gallery. Others stood court outside the governor’s office for most of the day.

House Democrats said they’re in communication with Senate Democrats on a revenue bill that includes an income tax hike. They are reviewing “minor changes,” including potential changes to the service taxes that were included in the initial bill. House Democrats must still be briefed on those changes to gauge support.

The proposed changes to the Senate school funding bill were immediately lambasted by Republicans as a bailout for CPS.

State Rep. Will Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, said changes to the measure would put CPS’ fiscal 2018 pension payments into their base funding minimum, while also adding in legacy costs to fund some of their unfunded liabilities. Davis said the pension payment would be in perpetuity.

Davis said there are close to 200 other school districts that would fare better than CPS under the measure in per pupil funding. He urged Republicans to vote based on whether their districts fared well.

“We’re encouraging folks to look at it, instead of being so focused on CPS, why don’t you take a look at your district? How do your districts do?” Davis said. “. . . If your districts are doing better as a result, to me, that should be more the impetus to support.”

Meanwhile, the Illinois Senate cleared two measures that would freeze property taxes for two years — one a freeze for school districts which would exclude CPS. Illinois Senate President John Cullerton called the measure a compromise, noting there’s concern over a longer freeze and how it would impact some of the state’s poorest school districts.

Rauner has said he’d only support an income tax hike paired with a four-year property tax freeze. It’s an issue he’s now dubbed a main priority as the budget clock ticks.

In another sign of the political war between Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a bill to let the governor move closer to selling the Thompson Center was met by resistance by state House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who called it “another attempted money grab by the City of Chicago and a bad deal for the taxpayers of Illinois.”

Rauner has been pushing for the sale since 2015 but Republicans weren’t happy with the Democratic-sponsored measure, arguing the governor should control future zoning changes and development costs. Republicans argued the bill would limit the state’s ability to get the most profit over the sale. The governor has said the state could get $300 million from the sale.

Madigan released a statement after the measure cleared, saying it shows the House Democrats continue to show “willingness to work with the governor to achieve his goals.”

“No negotiation can be one sided, and I urge the governor to now join House Democrats in resolving the most important issue facing our state, which is passing a state budget,” he said.