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updated: 5/24/2013 6:43 PM

Democrats say they can keep school funding level

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- House and Senate Democrats said Friday they've agreed on a proposed Illinois budget that avoids another cut to education funding and immediately pays bills owed to human services providers, including those who help the mentally ill, homeless and developmentally disabled.

Democrats, who have veto-proof majorities in both chambers, said they expect to present their 2014 spending plan early next week. Republicans, who say they've been largely shut out of the process, will then get a chance to weigh in on it.

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Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and one of the Senate's top budget negotiators, said she's confident lawmakers will be able to approve a final budget before the session is scheduled to adjourn May 31.

"This isn't a done deal yet by any stretch," Steans said.

Lawmakers did not present final numbers but said their plan restores about $150 million in general state aid for primary and secondary schools that Gov. Pat Quinn had proposed cutting in the budget that begins July 1.

Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, had said the cut was difficult but necessary because of the pressure of the state's worst-in-the-nation pension crisis. The reduction would have brought the total cut to K-12 education to more than $1 billion since 2008.

But Steans and Rep. Greg Harris said unanticipated revenue increases helped avoid the additional reduction. They also were able to keep level the amount of money the state provides school districts to help cover transportation expenses. Even so, districts won't get the full amount they are due; the state will continue to pay just 89 percent of the per-pupil general state aid amount set in state statute.

Harris said lawmakers also are proposing paying off the backlog of overdue bills for human services organizations.

"For a lot of community service providers, health care providers, nursing homes, they're running on fumes because we haven't paid their bills," the Chicago Democrat said. "Now maybe we can."

Lawmakers say the increased revenue comes from an improved economy and what they are calling an "April surprise" -- a one-time increase in tax revenue from an uptick in people who sold assets at the end of last year in anticipation of changes in tax code. That increase of about $1 billion would go to pay down the unpaid human services bills in the current fiscal year, allowing the state to take advantage of some federal matching dollars, Harris said.

Democrats also plan to use excess revenue in a corporate tax refund fund and are proposing cutting the amount of money that the state pays out to municipalities and counties -- plans that will likely draw opposition from Republicans.

Republican Sen. Matt Murphy, who serves on both of the Senate's appropriations committees, said Friday he was eager to hear what the Democrats will propose.

"They kind of took the ball and ran with it," said Murphy, of Palatine. "My sense is we're going to have some very interesting questions for them."

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