Column

McCaleb: Lawmakers should consider the theater instead of statehouse

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Dan McCaleb

Illinois lawmakers might want to consider new careers on the stage as their legislative terms wind down. Most aren’t very good at governing, but they sure do have the whole political theater thing down.

Take last Monday. The Illinois House was in session to consider education funding reform.

Representatives essentially had three options: 1. Approve a compromise bill hammered out by legislative leaders from both political parties and supported by Gov. Bruce Rauner but that was opposed by teachers’ unions. 2. Override Rauner’s veto of Democrats’ one-sided funding reform plan that would need at least four Republicans to break from Rauner for the override vote to succeed. 3. Fail at the first two and start over, further delaying school funding this year.

But lawmakers weren’t going to come to any resolution without their politically staged drama playing out.

Some background: Because of Speaker Michael Madigan’s gamesmanship earlier this summer, Illinois school districts are more than two weeks late in receiving state funding this fiscal year. Some schools might not be able to stay open long if they don’t receive state money soon.

Madigan, the playwright during this summer’s endless session, purposefully inserted language into a budget bill that passed in early July that required an evidenced-based education funding model to be in place before the state released checks to any Illinois school district.

Madigan’s intent was to force lawmakers hands on Senate Bill 1, a funding reform plan that includes an evidence-based model. Democrats and many Republicans worked together to form a model they both could live with. But at the last possible moment, Madigan rewrote the script. He inserted an amendment into SB1 giving Chicago Public Schools more than $200 million in additional state funding each year to bail out their failing pension systems.

This new plot twist benefited the city at the expense of suburban and downstate taxpayers, and Republicans withdrew their support. Democrats passed it anyway, and Rauner used his veto powers to strip out the CPS bailout money and make some changes to the evidenced-based model.

The Senate, with a supermajority of Democrats, successfully voted to override the governor’s veto. But in the House, Madigan would need all Democrat votes and at least four Republicans to break with Rauner to successfully override.

As it became increasingly clear Madigan wasn’t going to get the votes, legislative leaders began to meet behind closed doors to negotiate a compromise plan. That brings us back to Monday and the drama on the House floor.

The compromise plan agreed on by both parties’ legislative leaders largely negated Rauner’s changes, including his removal of CPS pension bailout funding. But it added a few positive things Rauner wanted: Relief for schools from some of the state’s unfunded mandates (including items addressing mandatory physical and drivers’ education) and the creation of a school choice plan that would give up to 6,000 lower-income students annually an opportunity to attend the private school of their choice. The school choice plan allows for voluntary, tax-deductible donations, capped at $75 million annually, toward school choice scholarships. The pilot program would expire after five years unless renewed.

Given the more than $200 million in additional state aid to CPS annually, the five-year school choice program seemed like a reasonable compromise ... unless you’re a teachers’ union.

The Chicago Teachers’ Union, which benefits the most from the additional state funding, in particular threw a fit. Calling the plan “extremist” and “unconscionable,” CTU claimed it was a threat to public schools everywhere. That put House Democrats, particularly those from Chicago, in a tight spot. With unions making up much of their base, they had a tough decision: Support a compromise plan that could pass and make sure schools get funded but alienate teachers’ unions. Or stand with the unions, reject the compromise but also fail to override Rauner’s SB1 veto, jeopardizing school funding.

But Madigan, being the genius puppetmaster he is, offered a third option, and this is where the political theatre comes into play. They could pretend to stand behind the unions but ultimately support the compromise. And this is exactly how it played out. Everyone knew the endgame, it just took a while to get there.

In Act 1, Madigan called the compromise bill to the floor, knowing it wasn’t going to pass.

Democrats gave angry speeches about why school choice was bad and SB1 was good. The measure, according to script, failed. Democrats showed they supported their teachers unions and all was good with the world.

In Act 2, the governor’s veto override was called and, again according to script, the measure failed. Even though Democrats didn’t have a supermajority to successfully override, they showed their teachers unions they stood with them and against Rauner.

But without Act 3, schools remained in danger of not being funded.  So the compromise bill was recalled to the floor and, according to script, more than 25 lawmakers switched their votes, despite the earlier vote being only 97 minutes prior. The measure passed and was sent to the Senate for concurrence.

Political theater like this, sadly, is more common in Springfield than substantive, positive outcomes.

Lost in this latest staged drama are the students who are trapped in Chicago’s failing public school system, students whom Rauner wants to help with his student choice plan. 

And, immediately after being asked for an extra $1,000 each year in state income tax, families across Illinois are being told that extra money is going to bail out Chicago school pensions.

These issues could’ve been solved had lawmakers been willing to have adult discussions about real issues and real solutions. Many of these lawmakers should stick to the theater. Voters need to elect adults who are willing to responsibly govern.

Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network and the digital hub ILNews.org. He welcomes your comments. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.