CHICAGO— Illinois House members squared off along party lines Thursday on an $800 million spending bill characterized by majority Democrats as a “lifeline” for cash-starved social service agencies and public college.

The package would provide $559 million for the state’s public colleges and universities and $258 million for social service agencies by dipping into special non-general fund accounts earmarked for higher education and human services. It passed in a 64 to 45 vote with one member voting present.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner slammed the proposal as a short-term bandage that would drive up the state’s debt and get in the way of work on a larger-scale budget compromise needed to end 22 months of political gridlock.

The state is at risk of losing its investment grade status if the budget stalemate drags into the next fiscal year July 1 or beyond.

“Temporary, incomplete, stopgap spending plans do nothing to truly balance the budget and fix our broken system,” Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said in a statement. “We hope the speaker starts focusing on enacting real and lasting solutions that will help cap government spending, create jobs, grow the economy and strengthen our schools instead of more duct-tape fixes.”

The plan stands little chance of becoming law any time soon.

While Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in the Senate, that chamber adjourned Thursday for a spring break. Senate President John Cullerton’s spokesman, John Patterson, said the chamber would take the bill under review but Cullerton has been focused on working to jump-start a sweeping budget compromise that includes tax hikes and policy reforms with his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Christine Radogno.

House Democrats lack sufficient votes to override a veto from the Republican governor. Rauner made his opposition to the spending bill clear a day earlier but Democrats were insistent on pressing forward with the vote that came after two hours of acrimonious debate which underscored the two sides’ bitter divide.

“The money is sitting there….it does not add at all to the backlog,” said House Bill 109’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago.

“This is a lifeline, a lifeline designed to save a life,” said Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, who blamed the lack of a budget on GOP lawmakers who “refuse” to oppose Rauner.

Chicago State University has been hard-hit by the state budget crisis.
Chicago State University has been hard-hit by the state budget crisis.

Republicans blasted the bill as providing just “crumbs” and said only a full budget package would solve higher education and social service organizations’ woes, arguing that stopgap allocations take pressure off lawmakers to reach a compromise.

“What we need….is a true crisis,” said Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights.

Stopgaps provide “relief valves to this steam that has been building up,” Harris said. If funding was halted for state payroll, Medicaid, and K-12 education “we’d have a budget because the crisis would be so great the people of the state of Illinois simply wouldn’t tolerate it and pressure would be so great on us we’d have to pass a full budget.”

The funding along with stopgap allocations approved in June would together provide only 36% of funding compared to fiscal 2016 level for social service agencies and as much as 60% less than public colleges and universities received, Republicans said.

About 90% of state spending continues during the impasse due to continuing appropriations and court orders and consent decrees, but higher education and social services require appropriations.

Human services programs that continue to be paid through various legal orders are also struggling as the state is $13 billion in the arrears on its bills.

“By not fully paying its bills, Illinois is facing a growing risk of long-term damage to the state's public higher education system and its network of human service providers,” Moody’s Investors Service said in a recent report. “While this pressure might fuel urgency for legislators and the governor to reach a fiscal compromise, there are signs already that protracted payment delays are causing perceived harm to these public programs.”

Moody’s said the state has so far appropriated $2.2 billion less for higher education during fiscal 2016 and 2017 than it would have under the prior two years’ spending levels.

Higher education institutions have cut staff, raised tuition, slashed programs, and trimmed days off the school year as they grapple with piecemeal portions of their aid. Several schools have lost their investment grade ratings.

The state has nine public universities with more than $2 billion of debt outstanding. State aid makes up on average about 40 % of the universities' operating revenue. The state has another 39 community colleges that have experienced similar, though less severe, operational and credit pressures as they rely on more diverse revenue streams.

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