Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for January 17, 2005

The following article appeared in today's edition of The Southern Illinoisan...


SPRINGFIELD (AP) -- Illinois Senate President Emil Jones says he and other lawmakers are ready to put last year's Democratic infighting behind them, but he's not willing to budge on one key issue: education spending.

Jones wants more money for schools in the next state budget, even though he expects another multibillion-dollar budget deficit, and he expects lawmakers will consider changing the way the state funds its public schools.

"The big priority is to adequately fund our educational system throughout the state of Illinois," Jones said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There's an inequity in the funding, and we must deal with that particular issue."

With the swearing in of the new Legislature on Wednesday, Jones started his second tour at the head of the state Senate.

The Chicago Democrat says he's proud of the government's accomplishments since Democrats gained control of both legislative chambers and the governor's office two years ago, including death penalty reform and solving large budget deficits without raising general taxes.

But last year's session will be remembered more for the bitter bickering among Democratic leaders that held up the budget by two months, giving Republicans more power and costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawmakers' overtime. Jones sided with Gov. Rod Blagojevich in pushing for education and health care spending increases, while House Speaker Michael Madigan and Republican leaders allied to limit spending and additional borrowing they said the state couldn't afford.

Jones says he doesn't feel there is any lingering animosity and believes the leaders can avoid another protracted session.

But he also says he won't compromise on education spending or on health care.

"I will sit down and work with anyone," he said. "But I will not balance the budget on the backs of schoolchildren, on the backs of the poor who need health care coverage."

Jones' primary push is boosting education spending and dealing with what he calls inequities in how schools are funded.

The current system bases funding heavily on local property taxes. A complex state formula ensures every school has a base amount to spend on each student, but because property values are much higher in suburban areas and provide much more money than that formula, downstate and poorer schools often end up with far less than suburban schools.

Lawmakers have been calling for changes, but Blagojevich said last year he would push for funding reform only after the education administration was revamped. That overhaul happened last fall, but the governor has yet to say when or if he'll address the funding issue.

Jones supports shifting the burden for school funding from local property taxes to income taxes, an idea that has been debated in the Capitol for decades.

In his speech ushering in the new session Wednesday, Jones stressed that lawmakers must change the "terrible, terrible, outrageous" funding system, but he wouldn't commit to a specific solution.

He knows that getting any funding reform approved will be a challenge, largely because the tax swap would be viewed by some as a massive tax increase and the existing funding system is extremely complicated. But he says it's not impossible if lawmakers from both parties work together.

"Whether it comes from the rural community and small towns or large cities, that's a common thread that runs through all families. They want the best for their children, they want the best possible education, and I believe that should be done on a bipartisan basis," Jones said. "There is growing support for us to do something."

Most of the focus this spring will be on the next state budget, which Jones says could already be facing at least a $1.5 billion deficit and others put at $2 billion.

Jones says gambling expansion, which he pushed for last year as a way to boost state revenue, is even more likely to pass this year because the state's finances aren't improving while spending demands keep rising.

He predicts lawmakers will eventually agree to a new construction program for roads and schools, which was postponed last year during the budget squabble, and expanding gambling would help pay for it.

Finding a cure for doctors' high medical malpractice costs will also be a priority, and it too will take a compromise, Jones said. But whether the solution is to go after frivolous lawsuits, as doctors want, or targets the insurance industry, where trial lawyers place the blame, won't be decided until more hearings are held.

Jones' caucus is smaller by one this session, as Republicans narrowed the Democratic majority to 31-27 in the November election, with one independent senator who often sides with Democrats. That could create more uneasiness on hotly debated issues where every Democrat vote is essential, but Jones says it won't be a problem.

Instead, he questions why Madigan would bring Republicans into the mix.

"The people gave us a Democratic majority," Jones said. "Why would you give us the majority in both chambers if you feel that you'll get involved with the other side of the aisle? They wouldn't do the same for us because they've never done it in the past."