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Illinois Governor Vetoes Education Funding Plan

Just after finishing a two year political standoff over a state budget, Illinois lawmakers are heading toward another impasse, this time over education funding. 

Denouncing it a “bailout” of Chicago Public Schools, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday partially vetoed a bill to overhaul the state’s school funding formula, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown over education funding that could cut off state money to schools across Illinois.

“With my changes, Illinois can achieve historic education funding reform that is fair and equitable to all Illinois children,” Rauner said from the state Capitol in announcing his veto.

The bill now heads back to the Democrat-controlled state legislature, which will have to choose whether to accept or reject Rauner’s changes or do nothing, which would kill the bill. There is no backup plan to distribute nearly all the state’s education funding before the academic year starts if Democratic leaders in the House and Senate do not have enough votes to override Rauner’s veto. 

Further hamstringing lawmakers is a provision in the new state budget that stipulates state money can only be doled out to schools using an “evidence-based” funding formula like the kind Rauner partially vetoed.

In recent weeks, Rauner has said he supports the overall funding formula, but accused Democrats of inserting extra money for CPS’ underfunded pension system. Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) has bristled at the governor’s characterization of the bill as a CPS “bailout,” accusing Rauner of pitting the rest of the state against Chicago. 

Cullerton has argued that CPS has been treated unfairly by the state for decades, and that the measure also includes more money for suburban and downstate teacher pensions. The original version of the bill received support from superintendents and independent education policy groups.

In a display of how contentious state politics has become, Cullerton recently questioned Rauner’s “mental state” for promising to partially veto the bill. That prompted Rauner’s mental health director to accuse Cullerton of perpetuating the stigma attached to mental illness. 

Cullerton has also questioned whether the state constitution allows for Rauner’s changes, which could move the fight toward a lengthy court battle. In a Tuesday press conference announcing his amendatory veto, Rauner didn’t directly address a reporter’s question about Democrats’ concerns surrounding the constitutionality of his veto.

It’s not yet clear whether Democrats have the votes to override Rauner’s veto.The measure passed the state Senate in May with 35 votes — one short of what’s needed to override Rauner’s veto. In the House, it passed with 60 votes. It would take 71 to override Rauner’s veto in that chamber.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel quickly criticized Rauner on Tuesday, saying in a statement that “his math is fuzzy, his claims have been proven false and the only thing the governor's action advances is his own personal brand of cynical politics.”

In a separate statement on Tuesday, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the governor's reasons for vetoing the education bill are "baffling as they are false," adding that the bill would give 268 school district more money than CPS. Bittner also referred to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Better Government Association and PolitiFact, which said Rauner's claims that the bill amounts to a "bailout" of CPS is false. 

Schools are scheduled to receive their first state payments on Aug. 10. While districts across Illinois have said they will open on time, some have said they’ll be forced to borrow money or make cuts, and they warn of more dire circumstances if f the standoff drags on. School districts that rely most heavily on state aid because they lack a strong property tax base are most in danger; some have said their local property tax funds will only last until Halloween. 

The latest impasse over school funding comes after a two-year political war over the state budget. 

Universities and social services received sporadic funding from the state in that time, forcing them to reduce staff and cut programs, while the state’s bond ratings took several hits. A state budget was approved in July after bond-rating agencies threatened to downgrade the state to junk status. 

But even then, a budget was approved not because of an agreement between Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders, but because 11 Republicans broke from Rauner to vote in favor of a spending plan that included an income-tax increase. 

WBEZ’s Linda Lutton contributed to this report.

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