SPRINGFIELD -- State funding for Illinois' public colleges and universities will essentially be unchanged for the fiscal year beginning July 1, under a budget plan approved Tuesday by a House committee.
But about $35 million originally earmarked for higher education is being redirected to elementary and secondary education instead. That additional money came from the so-called "April surprise," a windfall of unexpected revenue into the state's tax coffers when investors sold off assets in anticipation of changes in the federal tax code.
The House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee voted 14-7 on Tuesday to shift the money from colleges and universities to K-12 schools.
"We made the decision to support general state and early childhood education payments, which also left every single one of the universities flat," said Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, the chair of the committee. "I think that's a good investment overall because I've heard many of us over here, from the Senate to the House, Democrat and Republican, when we talk about the best thing being early childhood education.
"We had the opportunity to move some dollars into some of those programs that we believe in and that's what we did. At that same time we kept every single line for every single state university flat."
That was a victory, some legislators said, because Gov. Pat Quinn originally had proposed an approximate 5 percent budget cut for higher education.
Dunkin said while public universities are able to go to other sources for funding, elementary and secondary schools are limited to state and local taxes.
"What we don't fund to the particular universities they can make up in grant lines from outside sources, contributions from alumni, as well as their income fund (tuition payments). We're in a somewhat special and unique situation to be able to help other, more vulnerable communities, especially elementary and secondary education."
Asked if the universities would have to raise tuition to make up for the "lost" state funds, he said, "That's one source they can use."
Asked if the colleges and universities had agreed to the $35 million shift, Dunkin responded, "We weren't looking for their sanction, but they definitely didn't buy into a 5 to 10 percent reduction" in their funding.
Rep. Will Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, noted that even with the $35 million in higher education funds, some elementary and secondary budget lines still would be cut.
"But with the help from this appropriations committee, as well as the general services appropriations committee, we were able to keep many of the major items that all of us want, we're able to keep those items flat: the general state aid proration is maintained at 89 percent, transportation is flat, early childhood education is flat, among a few others. It was this committee's graciousness that allowed k-12 to not have to make significant cuts."
Davis said the stable funding for elementary and secondary education will "help to shore up ultimately the product that will come into the higher education community at some point in the future."
A few Republicans on the committee mildly objected to the funding shift and ended up voting against it, but they are a small minority in the House.
"It's easy to say that maybe we should have shifted those monies but if you look at education in the continuum ... it's all about shoring up education for the young people here in the state of Illinois," Davis said.
He said "we don't want" universities to raise tuition, "but that is a choice that they have. If you sit in this committee and hear what the universities say about what they're getting out of the k through 12 system, then we felt it was a great investment in shoring up a handful of the lines in the k-12 budget.
State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, said she voted for the funding shift "because the universities and the community colleges are level funded from last year and we know our difficulties with the state revenue. If we're able to do that, that's the right thing to do.
"We ask (the universities) every time they come to us: who is graduating? why do you have so many people taking remedial courses?" Jakobsson said. "And when our k through 12 is not able to keep up and send the students prepared to college, I think it's a wise decision to look at where this could help close that gap."