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Ill. Governor's School-Tax Plan Likely Dead

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Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar's plan to remake the state's school-funding system appeared dead on arrival last week, as legislative leaders signaled they would kill the bill.

Senate President James Philip said last week that it would take "an act of God" to overcome opposition to the plan among his fellow Republicans.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Philip confirmed that he and other Republican leaders have concluded that there is not enough support to move the governor's plan forward.

The setback for the plan came after Gov. Edgar called a rare joint session of the legislature March 22 to persuade lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would make the state pick up more of the tab for schools.

"During my five years as governor, I have never sought the privilege of addressing a joint session," the second-term Republican told lawmakers. "But I believe this is a unique opportunity in the history of our state."

Approval of the governor's plan indeed would be historic in a state whose heavy reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools has produced disparities between high- and low-spending school districts that are among the widest in the nation.

As drafted by the governor's blue-ribbon commission on school finance, the constitutional amendment would guarantee that the state would pay at least half of the basic cost of an adequate education, a cost described as the "foundation" level. It also would reduce drastically the state's reliance on property taxes as a source of school funding.

While the amendment left to the legislature the tricky questions of defining the cost of a basic education and determining the new tax mix to support schools, the governor's commission offered some guidance.

It suggested that the foundation level should be set at $4,225 per pupil. It also recommended trimming property taxes by about $1.5 billion, or 25 percent, and boosting the state's personal income tax to 4 percent, from 3 percent.

Under such a plan, schools would gain a net $400 million.

'A Ray of Hope'

Most educators in the state endorsed the governor's proposal in principle, if not in letter. Robert Haisman, the president of the 88,500-member Illinois Education Association, called the plan "a ray of hope for Illinois schoolchildren" and gave it "qualified support."

But Gov. Edgar's Republican colleagues in the Statehouse greeted the plan with less enthusiasm. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislature for the first time in decades, and a backlash in November to the governor's proposed tax overhaul might unseat many of his party mates.

"The word that we get so far is that there is not much support for a tax increase," said Mike Cys, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Lee A. Daniels. "And this is perceived as a tax increase."

Opponents of a proposed 1992 constitutional amendment to revamp the state's school-funding system also found fault with the plan.

Mr. Edgar's plan asks voters to approve a massive restructuring of the state's tax system without giving specific details of how that would be done, said Gregg Durham, the director of communications for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which led a business coalition that successfully opposed the 1992 ballot question.

For Mr. Edgar's proposed amendment to get on the November ballot, lawmakers would have to pass it with a three-fifths majority by May 5.

New Twist in Debate

The amendment represents a strange new turn in the state's debate over school funding--and Gov. Edgar's role in that debate.

Twice in his first term, the governor was faced with efforts to narrow the per-pupil spending gap between poor and wealthy districts in the state. Such spending ranges from about $3,000 to $15,000.

In 1992, Mr. Edgar largely stood on the sidelines as a constitutional amendment to remake the state's school-funding system garnered 57 percent of the vote, 3 percentage points shy of the supermajority required for passage.

And in 1994, he was challenged for re-election by Dawn Clark Netsch, a Democrat who built almost her entire campaign around a new school-funding plan.

The governor and his supporters say both those plans were too vague and opened the door for huge tax hikes without increased accountability for school spending.

"Even proponents of the defeated amendment could not agree on its meaning," the governor said in his speech to the legislature. "This one is clear."

"There will be substantial property-tax relief. There will be accountability. There will be a commitment to continued educational reform," he said.

Some political observers in the state speculate that Mr. Edgar made a dramatic move on school finance simply to make a big splash as the nation's governors convened for an education summit last week. (See story, page 1.)

But others said the governor has long worried about the state's school-funding woes but was bound by a 1990 campaign pledge not to raise taxes in his first term.

Even critics of his plan suggested that the governor is now looking to the next generation, not the next election.

"I think he is serious about this," said Mr. Durham of the state chamber of commerce. "He's not one to propose something out of political expediency. He thinks this is the right thing to do."

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