SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed state budget would transfer financial responsibility for school pensions to local districts, and the feelings are mixed among local representatives.

Rauner proposed the pension reform as part of a larger plan to balance the state’s budget by shifting retirement costs to school districts and by raising healthcare costs for state employees.

State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, applauded the initiative behind the plan without outright supporting it.

“In order to balance the budget, tough choices need to be made,” Righter said.

This could potentially raise costs for local school districts.

Eastern Illinois University and other state colleges also would have to pay a portion of their pension costs under Rauner’s funding proposal. The governor proposed $38.6 million for Eastern, up slightly from $38.1 million in the current fiscal year. But that’s down from $42.9 million the year before.

For Righter, the move is inevitable and necessary.

“That is something that is going to happen,” Righter said. “The question is when is it going to happen and over what period of time is that going to happen.”

He noted that local colleges may have their costs increase under this new pension reform, but it could be offset with new money to attract students.

“Lake Land College will begin paying a portion of their pensions,” he said. “However, a record amount of new money will be available for higher education.”

The governor has proposed to $350 million more into K-12 education and $100 million more in higher education in capital funds for higher education to meet deferred maintenance needs.

But it wasn’t clear if taxpayers would not, in fact, be hit with additional increases if local governments decided to raise property taxes to pay the new pension costs. Or if universities would need to raise their tuition.

State Rep. Reggie Phillips, R-Charleston, was less excited about the pension proposal. He agreed that something should be done about the pensions; however, he saw the governor’s plan as a proposal that “sounds good” on paper but ultimately is “unrealistic” in the current Democratically-controlled legislative climate.

“It is isn't going to work,” Phillips said. “We are not going to pass anything in the House of Representatives that would pass the pension payments on the school systems or the university systems. It isn’t going to happen, so it is a non-starter.”

Righter did agree that it would be a big hurdle to get this through.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago, said the governor is simply “recycling previous proposals.”

“He’s going after public sector employees’ health insurance, again,” Cullerton said in a statement. “He’s going after retired teachers’ health insurance, again.”

Phillips was most excited for the governor’s efforts to retain Monetary Award Program grant money.

Monetary Award Program grants for low-income students would be kept at fiscal year 2018 levels, laying the foundation for increased MAP funding in the future, said Rauner, who faces a tough primary election battle next month.

However, other lawmakers were skeptical that MAP funding would be secured at all.

“I’m concerned that the budget may affect the stability of students and families in Illinois,” said Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, who is a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “I fear the MAP appropriation will affect a greater percentage of students.”

The Illinois Board of Higher Education has been pushing for new funds after a two-year budget impasse financially crippled the state’s public institutions.

“A lot of institutions are under strain,” said John Bambenek, a former Champaign school board member who now serves on the Illinois Community College Board. “The moral of the staff and faculty is diminished.”

Bambenek said that students receiving MAP grants have been hit hard by the budget impasse.

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Reporter

Jarad Jarmon is a reporter for the JG-TC. He covers the city of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Mattoon schools and the Regional Office of Education.

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