It was ironic last week to hear the Speaker of the House, who has done much to consolidate power in our state, congratulate the chamber for taking control of the budgeting process this year. Not since political leaders wrestled control of the budgeting process in 1991 have representatives worked in a bipartisan fashion going line by line to write the budget.
The House passed nearly 10 budget bills for various areas of government instead of the usual one omnibus bill. Citizens can now see the detailed budget weeks before it will be finalized instead of hours before it is called for a vote. Finally, it’s noteworthy that the budget discussions involved legislative members of all five appropriation committees instead of just the four party leaders and governor.
The House budget is indeed historic but now it must be reconciled with the Senate version which passed in usual partisan fashion and garner the signature of the governor who has been basically cut out of the process.
For years, I have talked of the need for fiscal discipline—a balanced budget—in order to climb out of our fiscal hole. Last week we took a dramatic first step by not only authorizing less spending than revenue but also less spending than last year.
Certainly groups that received less money will object over the next few days but let’s look at the priorities established by the committees in the budget.
Human Services Takes Biggest Cuts
Human services comprise 50 percent of the budget so was given the biggest challenge to meet the spending limit. The committee had to reduce the general revenue spending by $358 million and $700 million in other funds—mostly federal stimulus funding– that will not be renewed next year. Nevertheless, the committee prioritized spending and kept many of the programs that the governor had proposed eliminating and awarded $12.1 billion from general revenue and $22.7 billion from all funds.
Hospital rates for Medicaid patients were not reduced but the payment cycle was increased to nearly two months. Home services were funded at last year’s levels as were prevention and treatment programs for alcohol and substance abuse. Priorities for funding were given to community based services over state run facilities, and funding for hospice programs were actually increased.
Like other committees, the Human Services Committee made sharp reductions to state department operations and staffing. The legislators directed funding to consumer services rather than employee payrolls.
House Approves First Education Reduction in Years
For at least the last decade, governors have directed more funding for K-12 education each year. In FY2012, the foundation level per student will stay the same but funding for other K-12 programs will be cut $168 million and higher education will see a $34 million reduction.
More funding will be available to pay for busing, and mandated categorical programs (special education) were funded at levels to capture all the available federal matching funds. Make no mistake about it; I was not pleased with the reductions especially to early childhood education, new textbooks, various career courses, and programs to improve student learning and turn around poor performing schools.
Higher education reductions were focused on public universities (1.2 percent) and monetary assistance grants to students attending for-profit private colleges. The committee felt that funding for public universities would have to be cut even more to continue giving funding to for-profit private colleges.
Corrections Consumes Public Safety Budget
While the public safety budget passed by the House holds most lines at FY11 levels, employee compensation was reduced by 10 percent across the board. HB 2165 holds most lines for the Department of Corrections at FY11 levels, but does give slight increases for repairs, maintenance and equipment. The Department of Corrections comprises about 80 percent of the budget.
I recently visited two prisons in central Illinois and found them understaffed and buildings in needed major repairs and renovation. Staffing for juvenile correction centers continues to be inadequate to provide a necessary high school education and job training for young people while they are in prison. It’s not surprising then that we have a high rate of repeat crime and imprisonment.
General Services Receive Small Allocation
This expense grouping covers the most number of state agencies but only about 5 percent of the budget. Like the agencies, constitutional offices under this category received smaller allocations than last year.
Funding for agriculture programs continued the decade long trend of reductions. The budget which regulates, promotes and protects our food supply now totals $95 million. The cuts this year affected programs to improve water quality and reduce soil erosion.
Sweeping Education Reforms Passed
Last week the legislature continued making major reforms to the state’s educational system. SB7 passed the House and now moves to the governor with changes to teacher tenure, dismissal, and collective bargaining. It also requires school board member training and a survey of learning conditions in each school.
Under the approved reforms, teacher tenure will no longer be based simply on years served, but also will include merit and student growth in learning. In addition, teacher reduction in force (RIF), recall, and the filling of vacant positions will be based on teacher performance before a board considers years of relevant experience.
Another provision of SB7 strives to avert teacher strikes. Under the bill when negotiations stall, the public will be able to see the final offers of the district and local bargaining unit prior to a strike. With this information, the public could pressure one side or the other to settle and avoid a strike. Finally, the State Superintendent of Education will have the ability to revoke a teaching certificate when a teacher receives two unsatisfactory evaluations within a seven-year period.
SB 7 is the result of months of negotiations between all interested parties – from the State Board of Education to the reform groups, teacher unions, and school management. These reforms combined with others over the past two years have the potential for major improvements in student learning and school operations.
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