Are Illinois Democrats making a federal case out of funding flap?
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Complaints about information leaks, calls for outside investigations, charges of “fake news” — and a demand for an apology.
No, it’s not Washington, D.C., this time.
In yet another sign of the distrust and animosity stymying state government, Illinois Senate Democrats on Friday requested that the state’s executive inspector general investigate whether Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration leaked school funding numbers to some school superintendents and to conservative news sites operated by radio host and Super PAC head Dan Proft.
The governor’s administration, in turn, said the figures were outdated numbers publicly available on the Internet and demanded an apology for the Senate Democrats’ “false and outrageous accusations.”
“The Senate Democrats today jumped the shark,” Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said in a statement.
The mess is amplified by the fact that there’s only 12 days left in the legislative session, and there are still negotiations ongoing on various important and delicate measures in attempts to end the historic budget impasse.
The Senate on Wednesday cleared a school funding reform measure — while noting that the state’s Board of Education had not yet done its analysis of the latest amendment, much to the chagrin of Senate Republicans. But the bill’s chief sponsor, State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, is now claiming the Rauner administration leaked numbers to the Kankakee Times on Thursday night, as well as to other school superintendents in an effort to kill the bill.
Manar called it “a textbook example of fake news,” while warning superintendents about inaccurate and outdated numbers.
The Kankakee Times, a site owned by Proft, reported that Kankakee County schools would be “net losers” under the bill, citing an Illinois State Board of Education analysis it had obtained.
By Friday afternoon, Proft’s Lake County Gazette also posted a report saying 37 Lake County school districts would lose money under the Senate bill.
Standing alongside Manar, state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, blamed the governor for “bringing Washington politics to Springfield.”
Hastings said “one of the governor’s many political organizations” started contacting school districts with false numbers to campaign against senators who voted in support of the bill.
While the bill now heads to the Illinois House, Manar on the Senate floor pushed for further negotiations with House sponsors and with Senate Republicans. Those negotiations continued on Thursday. Manar said old numbers were presented in that meeting, which he said Democrats pointed out.
He called the situation “another piece of evidence of why it’s almost impossible to have an honest and trustworthy conversation with the Rauner administration about anything, let alone about something as complicated as school funding reform.”
“What I want to know is how state records from Bruce Rauner’s education agency and his office ended up in the hands of a Rauner campaign group and what appears to be a direct effort to manipulate and derail efforts to to reform school funding and mislead constituents and taxpayers and voters,” Manar said on Friday.
He called the flap “a serious violation of trust by the Rauner administration” as negotiations continue about education funding. Senate Democrats were also miffed with the governor’s administration on Wednesday after State Board of Education Secretary Beth Purvis released a statement that was critical of the measure that cleared the Senate. It accused Manar of having “abandoned our bipartisan process,” and “forcing a Chicago bailout at the expense of every other school district in the state.”
The governor’s office on Friday said numbers Democrats cite in their accusations were on the state’s Board of Education website from a previous bill.
“One cannot leak something that is on a public web site,” Demertzis said in her statement. “Their false and outrageous accusations have been disproven, and they should apologize for manufacturing blatantly false accusations.”
Reached by phone on Friday, Proft categorically denied all claims that the numbers came from the governor’s office. He said numbers were requested a year ago from Reboot Illinois, an independent news website, and that the story reflects that the numbers are “the last known analysis” of the bill.
“There is nothing that Manar said that is truthful,” Proft said. “Everything he said is completely false.”
Proft’s Liberty Principles teamed with publisher Local Labs to produce his newspapers, which focus on local and state politics and support Republican candidates. Proft’s papers cover Maywood, River Forest, Westchester and Forest Park in the west suburbs, as well as DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties, the Quad Cities and Springfield.
Proft said the Kankakee paper didn’t contact the state Board of Education for numbers last year because it was “the path of less resistance” and it was easier to ask for Reboot to share the numbers.
“There was absolutely zero communication with the governor’s office for any information,” Proft said.
Proft said the Kankakee site planned to issue a correction because it did not reflect that the school funding bill that cleared the Senate had a “hold harmless” provision. That provision seeks to guarantee school districts would not lose money for the fiscal year 2017 and would receive new money in subsequent years. That’s a factor Manar noted since the Kankakee story cited cuts to local school districts.
And he sought to distance himself from accusations that the Rauner administration would help his papers because of Proft’s role with Liberty Principles. The super PAC has become a chief conduit for allies of Rauner to influence legislative races across the state without any restrictions on contributions.
“Rauner poured money into my super PAC. Yeah, big deal,” Proft said. “This has nothing to do with Rauner. He has not invested in my newspapers as I have said ad nauseam, not a cent from Rauner into the newspapers.”