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Local lawmakers hold Town Hall meeting in Joliet to discuss state of the state

After much debate in Springfield, the state passed a six-month stopgap budget in late June. Last week, legislators talked about the implications of that spending bill at the local level during a town hall meeting at Joliet Public Library Black Road branch.

Among those updating the crowd in attendance for the meeting were Gov. Pat McGuire, D-Crest Hill, Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, and Rep. Natalie Manley, D-Joliet.

McGuire noted the length at which legislators worked to come to an agreement in the spring, after what happened in fiscal year 16.

He said a lot of moving parts played a role in how the state ended up with a six-month stopgap budget for the fiscal year, which began July 1.

“While the governor of course has non-budgetary demands—his turnaround agenda—and that’s one reason why the leaders did not agree on this full year FY 17 budget, we got the six-month budget, which is better than nothing, but is a mess,” McGuire said.

Between conducting research, networking and reviewing proposals, state legislators intend to find a way to modernize the tax system and create new revenue sources. McGuire said Illinois has the “most narrow sales-tax base in the country.”

Higher education

Among programs not receiving funding in the coming year are financial aid funds for low and moderate-income students.

McGuire, who serves as chair for the higher education committee, said students with the greatest need for financial aid won’t the receive assistance they otherwise would’ve been offered to enter the doors of the nine public universities, set to open in the fall.

Social services

In the case of social services, McGuire said these organizations will receive 65 percent of the funding they were owed for fiscal year 15, which is the last year the state approved a budget, to cover 18 months.

McGuire noted the many challenges these agencies have faced to this point. He said it’s unfortunate.

“They’ve got to stretch that over all of FY 16 and the first six months of FY 17—which we’re in now—that’s July through the end of December,” he said.

K-12 education

For the last 10 years, K-12 education is one area that’s seen a decrease in funding, as well.

Bertino-Tarrant said locals can rest assured their local property tax contributions won’t have been for nothing.

“The one budget that was passed for the full year was our education funding,” she said. “Obviously, as we know, school has to open year-round. To come halfway point and to close school didn’t seem like a viable solution that any legislator would want to have to vote on. We did fully fund education and in addition we added more money to education.”

Bertino-Tarrant emphasized that their property tax dollars will continue to remain local, even as the funding situation in Chicago Public Schools continues to develop.

She said the stopgap budget doesn’t create the ideal situation, but it is hoped to provide some relief in thinking big picture.

“It doesn’t sound very fair when we talk about our social services getting 65 percent,” Bertino-Tarrant said. “We understand that. We know the 65 percent is not an idea solution, but if there’s one thing that legislators all agree on is that we need to open our schools on time and fully fund our kids’ education.”

Over the next year, lawmakers will be examining the equity piece that stems from funding K-12 education.

Bertino-Tarrant said it is important as lawmaker move forward they look at how state tax rates differ across the various regions of the state, to level the playing field.

“Sometimes we find that some of the more affluent communities keep their tax rate,” she said. “They have a great property value, [they have a] great property tax-rate base, they keep their rate more. ‘What happens is state will give them more money.’ Whereas there are some school areas that it’s a very poor area. No matter how high their tax rate is they’re never going to be able to equal out what other communities can get.”

Pension reform

One attendee raised a concern that locals might see a cost shift come to fruition after getting full K-12 funding.

Bertino-Tarrant said cost shifting always appears to be an idea that is “dangling,” but it’s not in the state’s plan.

“For us in the suburbs, a cost shift is a very scary topic,” she said.

Bertino-Tarrant noted the way in which cost of living differs in the various regions of the state.

She said while there are those downstate who might support the measure, others would work to counter that action.

“I do believe we have a block of suburban legislators who know an immediate cost shift, at this point, will just fall on our tax payers,” Bertino-Tarrant said.

Manley noted the way in which Gov. Bruce Rauner pushed for smoothing, an accounting method that lowers taxes when they’re high and raises them when they’re low, to address the state’s pension pickup issue. As a certified public account by trade, she said that idea doesn’t rest well with her.

“I do not agree that we should do a smoothing,” Manley said. “I think this problem is just going to perpetuate and go forward. But, I’m willing to do it because I’ve got a lot of constituents that need state services and all that was being hung over our heads.”

If the general assembly does not hold a vote on statewide pension reform by Jan. 1 for state employees, K-12 teachers, community college and university teachers, CPS doesn’t get their $212 million allotment.

The pension proposal, McGuire added, wouldn’t deter existing retirees.

As for active employees, McGuire said, they would have to make a choice within a 30-day period: keep the 3 percent annual increase, keep the 3 percent but no future salary increases, or take the actual cost of living simple, not compounded.

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