Ill. Lawmakers Get One More Try To Pass School Funding Reforms

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For Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, the third time could be the charm.

After two school-finance-reform initiatives failed to pass legislative muster this year, the Republican governor is hoping that his third attempt--during a special legislative session he called for Dec. 2--will finally meet with success.

"For the second time this year, we came very, very close to passing long-needed legislation on school funding reform," Gov. Edgar said in a statement last week. "After discussions with our legislative leaders, I am hopeful that we can get the additional support we need to pass this crucial piece of legislation."

The governor's proposal would deliver $607 million in new state dollars to schools, most of which would be used to bring Illinois' poorest districts to a base funding level of $4,225 a student. That amount, which would rise to $4,445 by fiscal 2000, is what state leaders have determined to be the minimum needed to provide the state's 2 million public school students with an adequate education.

Gov. Jim Edgar

The new aid would come from a combination of taxes on cigarettes, riverboat gambling, and telephone services. New revenue would also come from so-called tax deadbeats, who will pay higher fees for filing their state taxes after the deadline. The legislation calls for continuing appropriations through fiscal 2001.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the plan during the fall veto session Nov. 12-15, but the Democrat-controlled House narrowly rejected it before leaving Springfield.

Mr. Edgar is not amending the legislation for the special session. Instead, he plans to do his best to change the minds of House members who voted against the plan during the veto session this month.

'Playing Politics'

The state's current finance system allows for some of the widest disparities in student expenditures in the nation, from about $3,100 per pupil to nearly $16,000, depending largely on the property wealth of a given district, according to the state education department.

Gov. Edgar's original plan, proposed last spring, would have fundamentally changed the system by shifting the burden of paying for schools from local property owners to a statewide income tax. The $1.6 billion measure passed the House but failed to win in the Senate, where Republicans blasted the plan as the biggest tax increase in state history. ("Ill. Lawmakers Duck Vow To Revamp Funding," June 11, 1997.)

The governor's latest plan has its fair share of critics both in and out of the legislature, most of whom complain that it does not go far enough to overhaul the finance system, offers no property-tax relief, and relies on additional revenues that are vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy.

Lawmakers "are still playing politics," said Larry McNeal, a school finance expert at the University of Illinois in Normal. "This is a short-term relief plan that doesn't shift the major burden of financing schools to the state."

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  • Read a statement on the Illinois special session from Gov. Jim Edgar's official Web site.
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