Illinois Senate approves $454 million more for colleges

(Illinois Springfield/Flickr)

The Illinois Senate agreed Thursday to spend an additional $454 million on struggling colleges and universities, another stopgap measure as lawmakers continue an epic standoff over a full budget.

Lawmakers approved the bill on a near unanimous vote and sent the measure to the House, which can take it up as soon as Tuesday when state representatives return to Springfield.

Democrats who control the Legislature and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner have been unable to agree on a budget since July 1, and higher education institutions have been forced to lay off staff. Chicago State University let go more than 300 employees this month, about a third of its workforce, because of the prolonged budget battle.

"I do know that none of us particularly like the situation we're in right now," said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a Democrat from suburban Chicago, noting that "tensions are high" at the Capitol. "But this is something I think we need to do to show people in our districts that we are listening and we hear them and that to the extent that we can work together to do something positive for our districts, we should."

Last month, lawmakers used $600 million left over in an education fund to help colleges make it through the summer. The additional money lawmakers are considering now would get higher education institutions to 60 percent of what would have been their current year funding levels.

Lawmakers are proposing to get the money by not repaying various state funds they borrowed from, like the School Infrastructure Fund and the Supplemental Low-Income Energy Assistance Fund.

Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Republican from Vandalia, was one of the lawmakers who opposed the idea.

"This is ridiculous. Swapping money from one pocket to another. Saying you have it when you don't. Maybe everyone on my side is much smarter and I just don't get it," he said.

But the majority of lawmakers embraced the proposal.

"This is an opportunity for us to once again act like adults," said Champaign Republican Sen. Chapin Rose.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said the governor is open to discussing emergency funding for higher education but that he's focused on passing a complete budget.