Rauner pits downstate, Chicago schools against each other with special session

Jul 31, 2017

During the lead-up to the recent special legislative session over the state budget and a tax hike, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s staff studied whether their boss had the power to force legislators to attend the sessions.

A court ruled during the Rod Blagojevich era that the General Assembly must convene at the date and time ordered by the governor, but Rauner’s staff found nothing in state statutes that gives the governor the power to, for instance, deploy the Illinois State Police to haul legislators to Springfield. You may recall 2011, when several Wisconsin and Indiana Democratic legislators attempted to deny their General Assemblies a quorum by fleeing to Illinois, outside the jurisdiction of their respective state police forces. But, as we’ve seen time and time again, for better or for worse, we aren’t Wisconsin or Indiana.

The battle plan to kill the Democrats’ education funding reform bill (Senate Bill 1) that was plotted before Gov. Rauner’s infamous staff purge in early July, and which still appears to be mostly operative, actually anticipated low special session turnout since there likely wouldn’t be much of anything to vote on. They figured that the Democrats would wait a while before lifting the parliamentary brick off the education funding reform bill – the better to foment a crisis atmosphere as the clock ticks down to schools reopening after summer break.

So, legislators not showing up for session will likely only amplify the governor’s contention that the majority party isn’t interested in preventing a crisis and funding schools. The cops aren’t needed.

Overall, the plan devised a while back is pretty good, even though it relies heavily on stoking the flames of regionalism with an unspoken but still clear racial element.  Rauner’s “Chicago bailout” card is about the easiest one to throw in this state, and it has been played longer than anyone reading this has been alive.

Despite the fact that Downstate pays far less in state taxes than it receives in state benefits, people who live there think Chicago is the place that gets all the taxpayer goodies. It’s actually suburbanites who pay the bills on net, and with their high local property taxes and a recent income tax hike, those folks are probably (and understandably) not thrilled with the idea of bailing out the city’s notorious school system.

The bill’s supporters have lined up an impressive list of Downstate and suburban school superintendents in strong support of SB 1. Education groups like Stand for Children (which was, ironically enough, brought to Illinois by then-private citizen Bruce Rauner) have been advertising locally to back the plan.

But school superintendents are often resented by local taxpayers for their high salaries. And at least one has already been singled out by conservative political activist Dan Proft’s newspaper empire. Proft’s outfit published a snarky article last week about Harrisburg Superintendent Mike Gauch, a prominent SB 1 supporter who is often cited by proponents. The piece noted that Gauch and his wife, a Carbondale public school teacher, make a combined $220,000 per year, plus benefits.

“The Gauches represent a new reality in Southern Illinois,” the article claimed, “a public employee power couple whose income ranks them among the wealthiest families in Saline County.

Aside from the class warfare angle, the superintendents don’t have a vote in the General Assembly. So, while they can credibly claim all they want that SB 1 isn’t a Chicago bailout, the governor simply counters with his own numbers (which he won’t verify) that Downstate and suburban schools would do much better with his plan (which he refused to disclose for weeks).

The idea of using the superintendents was not just to encourage Republican legislators to support SB 1, but to give them ample political cover if they decided to cross the governor and override his veto. But since the governor has concocted his own proposal with his own numbers (which show that schools outside the city will get lots more money than they would under SB 1), that encouragement now means little and the cover is blown.

Downstate and suburban Democrats who vote to override his veto are also put in a bind because the governor can claim that those Democrats voted against their districts and for Chicago.

Preventing a veto override is the governor’s main effort here, but passing a bill into law that reforms school funding is a whole different matter. Without such a law on the books, billions of dollars of state education formula money can’t be distributed. And as I write this, that solution doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s horizon.

Related: Illinois budget standoff update: Rauner needs to govern, Dems can't protect unions forever.
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Last year, gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner pledged to “crack down on waste” in government in order to save taxpayers over $140 million. He also vowed to cut $500 million from…

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