SPRINGFIELD - The Illinois House added more than $280 million to elementary and secondary education last week and $10 million to state universities, but community colleges did not benefit from the House's largess.
The Senate is meeting today to discuss those budget changes, and indications are that some of the increases could be scaled back.
The House's additions to the budget are generally considered starting points in negotiations and are far from guaranteed, but the fact that no extra money has been proposed for community colleges does not bode well for those institutions' chances for an increase.
"Certainly the community colleges have taken their share of cuts and are doing their best," said state Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, who nonetheless admitted "there does not appear to be much movement in the direction of restoring proposed cuts to community colleges."
State Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, voted against the House's appropriation bill for community colleges on Friday, which maintained the governor's suggested funding level of $286.2 million for community college operations and grants, a cut that amounts to 5.6 percent after adjusting for the transfer of some grant programs.
The governor kept unrestricted operating grants to community colleges for next school year at this year's level, but cut other kinds of grants, including $5 million that was to go to downstate community colleges.
"I think it is unconscionable what we are doing to a front-line higher education system," Black said. "Don't cut the community college system."
Community colleges are particularly important in economically distressed areas like Danville, where the colleges not only provide jobs to their own employees, but help area residents improve their job prospects, Black said.
Illinois Community College Board President Joseph Cipfl said most of the colleges are experiencing record-high enrollments.
"When the economy turns down, when individuals become unemployed and underemployed, they turn to their community colleges in order to develop the necessary skill set that makes themselves more employable, opens up more job opportunities," he said.
State Rep. Ricca Slone, D-Peoria Heights, chairwoman of the House committee on higher education appropriations, said there was not enough money to add to the governor's proposed budget for community colleges in a year that the state is facing a $5 billion deficit.
"We had a very, very limited amount of money to restore and we had to be pretty careful how it was used," Slone said. "We tried to use the money where we thought the need was greatest."
The universities lost a lot more money than the community colleges did in the governor's budget proposal, she said.
Slone's committee added $10 million back into state university budgets on a pro-rata basis, and added $2.5 million into the Illinois Student Assistance Commission budget to pay for scholarships for needy students in their fifth year of college.
Slone said she had no idea whether the money the House put back into higher education would end up in the final version of the budget for the year beginning July 1.
"I think it will be subject to negotiations, like many other things," she said.
Cipfl said he was grateful that the governor did not try to cut community colleges as deeply as he cut universities' funding, but he is still seeking any new money that might be available.
"Obviously there is still some time to go before the session ends, and we will be engaging lawmakers in conversation to see what resources might be available," he said. "It's never over till it's over."
You can reach Kate Clements at (217) 782-2486 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.