Update: House panel approves higher ed funding bill

SPRINGFIELD — The House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee on Thursday morning approved a higher education budget bill on a partisan, 14-9, roll call. All Democrats voted for the bill; all Republicans were opposed.

The bill now moves to the House floor where final approval could come later today.Based on the fact that the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget registered this morning as a proponent of the budget bill, Gov. Pat Quinn’s approval of the higher education spending plan is considered likely.

The bill is one of two that Democrats pushed through the state Senate on Wednesday, giving both higher education and elementary and secondary education close to the same levels of funding as the current year.

The University of Illinois was satisfied with the "flat" funding, spokesman Tom Hardy said, because it was an improvement over the level suggested earlier this year by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Quinn's budget had called for an approximate $32 million, or 5 percent, cut to the state's colleges and universities.

Under the proposal approved Wednesday in SB 2556, the UI will get $599.1 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The higher-education spending bill was approved 40-19 in a party-line vote, with all Democrats voting yes and Republicans voting no.

A separate funding bill for K-12 public education, contained in SB 2555, was approved on an identical roll call.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

While senators debated the elementary-and-secondary-education budget, sometimes fiercely, for about an hour, they spent much less time on the higher-education budget.

Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, noted that the UI is still owed about 40 percent, or $250 million, of this year's appropriation, with about a month left in the fiscal year.

"We can say that we're flat funding this or we're flat funding K-12 ... but when you don't pay people, it really doesn't matter," he said. "And here we are in the current year still owing the U of I 40 percent. But then we say, 'Don't worry, we're going to flat-fund you next year.'"

Rose also complained that with higher education and education line items distributed among several different bills, it was difficult to determine the actual budget. Plus, he said, Republicans still haven't seen the budget-implementation bill that details various program revisions and shifts in the entire state budget.

"I would just caution everyone, before you go home and tell people, 'Oh, don't worry, we're flat funding,' I would tell them also, 'Don't spend it until you get the check,'" Rose told his colleagues.

Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, the sponsor of the higher-education budget bill, closed his remarks with a defense of spending on public colleges and universities.

"If you don't have a college degree in the state of Illinois, the unemployment rate is 20 percent. Twenty percent. It's off the charts," he said. "But if you do have a college degree, it's 6 percent.

"People get jobs, they have an opportunity to grow, they have an opportunity to be productive and be viable, tax-paying citizens."

Following the vote, Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, said, "Ideally, after years of cuts to higher education, I would like to see more money being put in. In other states, they're doing that. But we have to face the reality of our budget here in Illinois and what we can afford.

"At a time when other areas are going to be seeing cuts, seeing flat funding is a victory."

Senate Democrats said the higher-education budget also adds $3 million to the state Monetary Award Program, which provides financial aid to students.

But Senate Republicans said they were shut out of the budget process, and didn't see much of the spending data until a committee hearing Wednesday morning.

"I think our staff got it last night," said Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, "and our staff literally handed us a document when we walked into committee this morning. They said they weren't even able to upload it to the computers that we have available. So I had a stack of paper that explained much of what was in there.

"It's like a board of directors walking into a two-hour meeting to adopt a multibillion-dollar budget without having any opportunity to see the numbers before that meeting."

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