May 29, 2024

Rich Miller: Chicago mayor comes to Springfield

Much of the Illinois Statehouse appeared to be girding itself for battle with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson before his Springfield visit last week.

After dramatically announcing to Chicago reporters earlier in the week that the city’s families are “owed” $1 billion from state government, particularly education, Gov. JB Pritzker sent two distinct messages to the building.

First, Pritzker notified state agency directors to start preparing for $800 million in budget reductions next fiscal year because of lack of legislative support for the governor’s revenue proposals. The directors were told to focus on “grant programs and other discretionary spending that has increased in recent years.”

Then, the governor’s office issued an extensive background memo laying out how much more money Chicago’s school system has received from the state, including a $265 million increase in its annual General Revenue Fund outlays since fiscal 2019, which worked out to a $1,542 per student hike, or a 30% increase. The annual Early Childhood Block Grant appropriation was increased by $66.4 million in the same time period. Plus, more money for teacher pensions and enough money from the state’s evidence-based funding formula to where Chicago Public Schools is now funded better than more than 400 Illinois schools and has moved out of the critically underfunded Tier One level to Tier Two.

And then, the Senate Executive Committee, tightly controlled by Senate President Don Harmon, unanimously approved Harmon’s bill opposed by Mayor Johnson to protect selective enrollment schools from closure, entrance admissions changes and disproportionate budget cuts until a fully elected school board is seated. The measure (HB303) was scheduled for a hearing before Johnson made known that he was coming to Springfield. But instead of delaying passage out of deference to Johnson, it was put on the agreed bill list, which was quickly zoomed to the floor without debate, where it may be amended.

Perhaps sensing the headwinds, Johnson’s lobbying crew belated distributed a one-page memo to legislators containing far more modest budget requests than Johnson had previewed to city reporters, and nothing about direct public school funding.

The mayor’s office asked for a little more money from the Local Government Distributive Fund, some lead service line replacement debt forgiveness and more money for lead removal from licensed daycare centers, a change in state law to allow the city to collect more for its 911 services, and money to replace what ultimately turned out to be a federal budget cut for domestic violence hotline funding.

As a result, the mayor did not bring up the $1 billion “owed” for schools during meetings with any of the leaders, I’m told. Instead, he focused on that one-pager, which in one instance was printed from my website to be used during the discussion.

The governor’s office starts putting the budget together in the fall, and they work through February to craft it. That’s the best time period to make initial budget requests. A mayoral visit to Springfield in May should be for a victory lap, or to shore up last-minute support for the budget.

Mayor Johnson was asked by a reporter if maybe he should be in town more often or make his budget requests earlier in the process. “Well, look, we’re at the right time,” Johnson said. “As you all know, you all have been covering Springfield for a very long time, you know when stuff gets done. So we’re down at the right time.”

Um, now is when things are finalized. The governor, advocacy groups and legislators have been pushing their own budgetary priorities for weeks, even months. Coming to town with two weeks left can mean settling for leftovers, and if the budget is as tight as the governor says, there may not be any leftovers.

Meanwhile, the Chicago city council’s Black Caucus was in Springfield the same day for a long-planned lobby day. For whatever reason, the mayor did not attempt to coordinate with the caucus after he belatedly announced his Statehouse trip. That seems odd.

The mayor also held a Springfield press conference. Asked about education funding, the mayor said he wanted to push for that $1 billion over time. When asked whether his proposals would “jump the line” ahead of other school districts, Johnson said, “This is not a zero-sum game. There’s more than enough for everyone.”

Except there’s not, which is what the mayor’s top allies at the Chicago Teachers Union will be told when they visit Springfield en masse for their own lobby day to demand that billion dollars the mayor didn’t bring up.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

Rich Miller

Rich Miller

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.