SPRINGFIELD – Another week of legislative activity has concluded, with just one scheduled week left in the spring session. A lot of action was taken last week as the Senate and House gave final approval to potential new laws, some more controversial than others. Meanwhile, some significant issues remain unresolved.
Funding local schools
Education funding is still a hot topic, although for all the concern, there has been very little movement on addressing the funding imbalance and shortfalls faced by many of our local schools.
One proposal, Senate Bill 16, has excited many by the first run of numbers promised to schools in the 54th Senate District, but it has slowly been amended to shift more money back to Chicago in a complicated formula that was originally a cause of the long-running funding problem. For example, relief from unfunded state mandate is only attainable under this plan if approved by the Regional Offices of Education. Opposition to this amendment from the influential Chicago public schools might cause it to be removed causing the extra money to districts to vaporize with one change in the multidimensional school aid formula. Politics and special interests influence have played a part in the funding inequities as we learned more than a year ago when Senate Republicans released a detailed analysis of education funding in Illinois. As a result of concerns about Senate Bill 16 by legislators on both sides of the aisle, there has been very little movement to pass the plan.
Let’s take action now
However, there is a way we can increase funding for our schools immediately and that would be to fully fund the Foundation Level grant, which was designed to provide equity and a basic level of per student funding. Over the years, as other education programs have been expanded, money was diverted from the Foundation Level and our schools have had that funding “prorated” resulting in greater inequity and fewer resources. That’s why I signed on to Senate Bill 3664 this past week, which requires the Foundation Level grant within the state’s General State Aid formula to be funded at 100 percent before directing education dollars to any other grant lines or programs. Because of the longer-term uncertainty of Senate Bill 16’s impact, I prefer SB3664 alternative.
Fully funding the Foundation Level now is a way we can begin to restore fairness to education funding. It also gives us time to work out details on funding other education programs without swapping the current convoluted formula for another. Most importantly, it provides an immediate increase the schools in our district greatly need and deserve.
Charter school concept under attack
Also last week, we saw how politics and special interests combined to undermine the concept of charter schools in Illinois. The Senate passed a measure (House Bill 3754) that abolishes the independent State Charter School Commission that we set up a couple of years ago to bring about the best education we can provide for our students. The proposal transfers all duties and powers to create charter schools to the State Board of Education, which at the time, was on record as saying they didn’t have the money or the time to review and process charter school applications. And they still hold to that position. Yet, that advice was ignored because certain legislators didn’t personally like how the commission operated. I opposed the measure because the Commission was operating as it was designed and agreed upon by the bipartisan effort which brought about its creation, an effort of which I was part.
Education or propaganda?
Another controversial education issue that came before the Senate this week dealt with bullying. House Bill 5707 which was approved by the Senate would impose a state mandated bullying curriculum on our schools. No one wants to see bullying take place but the fact that the bill’s sponsors refused to guarantee the rights of parents and students to op-out of the state mandated “programming” or “training” troubled me and that’s why I voted against the measure. We only have to look at what’s occurred in other state’s to know that these kinds of curriculum can be used to promote ideas about behavior that is in conflict with personal or religious beliefs. An opt-out should be a basic right.
Cupcake Capers at the Capitol
I know you are familiar with the name of Chloe Stirling. She’s the inspiring young lady from Troy who took her passion for baking and turned it into a small enterprise so she could earn some money on her own. Unfortunately, there is legislation (House Bill 5354) at the Capitol that would see to it that the regulatory roadblocks to fun and learning experiences remain in place for children like Chloe.
You know the story about how the local health department shut down Chloe’s cupcake business with rules and regulations really meant for restaurants. State Rep. Charlie Meier (R-Okawville) tried to do the right thing and introduced a measure to exempt kid-inspired bake sales and lemonade stands but when his legislation came to the Senate, it was changed to keep the burdensome regulations in place. This week I officially registered a proposal to alter House Bill 5354 again so we can add back the common sense that was lost.
My measure would exempt kids like Chloe Stirling from the costly government regulations. If you earn less than $250 per month from your bake sale or lemonade stand, you will not have to obtain a local permit, take eight hours of training on how to handle food and drink and obtain a costly certificate. It’s ridiculous that kids or their parents would have to go through the training and costs of up to $200, just so they can bake a few cupcakes or cookies or sell a pitcher or two of lemonade to neighbors in front of their home on a hot summer day.
While we can hope for the best, sadly, common sense ideas are not always well understood under the Capitol Dome.
The budget/tax drama continues
As we head into the final week of the spring session, there appears to be very little movement on a new state budget, which is usually finalized by the end of May. Votes have been taken by the House on two radically different budget plans but no votes have occurred in the Senate. Unfortunately, what we have witnessed this spring is a well-orchestrated series of budget hearings portraying doomsday scenarios if the Democrat’s 2011 state income tax hike begins its scheduled rollback at the end of this year. When they passed the increase, without Republican votes, they promised it would be temporary. But, the Governor and the Democrat leaders have all said they want the tax hike to stay in place. For the average Illinois working family, that 67 percent increase in the tax rate amounted to a week’s pay in each of the last three years. All of their promises about debt relief and economic good times never came to pass and now the leaders and many of their members want to break the promise that it was temporary.
This past week, the Speaker of the House said he does not have enough votes to pass the tax hike extension, even though a majority of his House Democrat members voted to spend the money from the tax hike. It’s hard to believe when push comes to shove that the majority party will conclude the spring session without recommitting their love for the tax increase.
Throughout the spring session, Republican lawmakers have argued the drastic cuts outlined by the governor and his allies exaggerate the impact of allowing the tax hike to expire. If you saw the budget documents we see, you would notice all the new and expanded spending the governor inserted in his budget plan, and we also learned recently about higher than expected state revenues coming in so, I believe a responsible budget could be crafted that still allows the tax hike roll back to take effect January 1.
Kyle McCarter is Republican state senator from Lebanon.