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Illinois Senate Democrat, Republican Say They’ll Negotiate New School-Funding Plan

In hopes of averting another political impasse that could cut off nearly all state money flowing to schools, two key lawmakers on Wednesday said they will try to negotiate a new school funding agreement after Gov. Bruce Rauner partially vetoed a similar measure backed by Democrats.

State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington), a lead negotiator for Senate Republicans on school funding, said he and his colleagues will push to include additional measures in the school funding bill, such as a statewide property tax freeze long sought by Rauner.

Barickman, speaking on WBEZ’s Morning Shift, said he also wants to lift some state mandates on schools districts so they have “more flexibility on how they spend their money,” and he wants the creation of a new scholarship program that lets students choose which school to attend — including private or parochial schools. The concept is similar to a school vouchers program, though its supporters dispute that characterization.

“Republicans have offered suggestions to Democrats of issues we would be interested in negotiating on, but we have yet to hear from Democrats [on] their willingness to embrace any of those ideas,” Barickman said.

Steve Brown, a spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, said the scholarship program might be worth giving serious consideration to “if properly balanced” with other compromises.

Madigan has long been an ally of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the scholarships program could increase the number of students enrolled in parochial schools. A spokeswoman for the Catholic Conference of Illinois said the organization, which represents the interests of the Catholic Church at the state Capitol, supports the scholarship proposal.

Barickman accused Democrats of publicly saying the two sides are close to a deal, even though he said Wednesday that they’re not.

If efforts to craft a new, compromise bill collapse, Senate Democrats will attempt an override of Rauner’s veto, said state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), who has long spearheaded efforts to overhaul the state’s funding on public education. In order to do that, Democrats in both the House and the Senate would need a supermajority, which they lack on their own.

Manar accused Rauner of taking the state down a “divisive” path by vetoing the measure on Tuesday.

"That's what Gov. Rauner thrives on is division and politics, not compromise and solution," Manar said.

Manar, who also appeared on Morning Shift, said before an override vote, lawmakers must determine whether Rauner’s veto is actually constitutional. Manar said Rauner rewrote the bill in his amendatory veto, which may have exceeded the governor’s constitutional authority — an argument the governor has rejected.

“We still have questions about the legality of this veto, because the governor in his efforts to veto Senate Bill one, completely rewrote the bill,” Manar said.

The bill now heads back to the Democrat-controlled state legislature, which will have to choose whether to accept Rauner’s changes, reject them, or do nothing — a move that would kill the bill and leave Illinois with no backup plan for distributing education money as schools prepare to open their doors to students.  

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 Tuesday, setting up the showdown over school funding.

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. You can follow him at @tonyjarnold

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