Illinois lawmakers pass $600M aid for struggling colleges
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Illinois' college and universities received a much-needed lifeline Friday when lawmakers approved a $600 million short-term funding fix for the institutions, which have been struggling without state funding during the monthslong budget stalemate, even laying off employees.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is expected to sign the bill, which is a one-time deal and includes nearly $170 million in tuition grants for low-income students. But state Comptroller Leslie Munger said she wouldn't wait for the Republican's signature, instead immediately begin processing payments for schools. The rare bipartisan deal comes at an especially crucial time for Chicago State University, which has been on the verge of closing its doors.
"By passing this bipartisan agreement, lawmakers in both chambers put aside political differences to provide emergency assistance for higher education, ensuring universities and community colleges remain open and low-income students can pay for school," Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in a statement. "We are hopeful the General Assembly will build on this bipartisan momentum in the weeks ahead as we negotiate a balanced budget with reform for Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017."
But Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan cautioned in a statement that the money should be seen as emergency aid, not a solution. Rauner's main rival in the impasse, Madigan still remains frustrated, underscoring just how challenging budget negotiations remain.
"Time will tell if Governor Rauner has further intentions of destroying our state institutions and human service providers, or if he will begin working with us to craft a full-year budget that is not contingent on passage of his demands that will destroy the middle class," he said.
Rauner and Democrats who control the Legislature have been in an epic 10-month standoff over a budget that should've taken effect July 1. Democrats have balked at his proposals to curb the power of unions and pass business-friendly legislation as part of any budget agreement. Money for this bill is possible because of a surplus in the state's Education Assistance Fund.
The House overwhelmingly approved the aid on a 106-2 vote and the Senate passed it unanimously.
The long wait for state help has already caused irreversible damage at some of the state's higher education institutions.
At Western Illinois University, in Macomb, a few employees have lost their jobs and another 110 have received notices that they will be laid off this summer. The school's share of the money approved Friday likely won't change that, Western Illinois budget director Matt Bierman said.
Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported that the University of Illinois' flagship campus in Champaign-Urbana is preparing to lay off some of its more than 1,000 clerical, child-development and Extension Service workers, though the number has not been decided. The anticipated infusion of money does not affect those plans, campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
Nevertheless, some lawmakers hailed their agreement because it came after many months in which compromise has been elusive and it gave some hope that it could signal progress on a larger budget deal.
Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno said she was "happy that we are going to be able to address this issue, at least partially right now." She said she hopes lawmakers can work together on a compromise to help human service agencies.
Shortly after her comments, the Senate unanimously passed a measure to allocate $450 million in temporary aid to human service programs. The vote sent the bill to House, which has adjourned until May 3.
But not everyone was happy with the higher education deal. A House Democrat who voted against it said he would've preferred a total fix to the budget and some of his colleagues wanted money for social service programs.
"We have created a political freak show and a financial Armageddon for our state," said Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Woodstock. "Don't be too proud," he added.
Associated Press writer David Mercer in Champaign, Illinois, contributed to this report.