Funding for migrants, Chicago school board elections on agenda as lawmakers return to Springfield

Funding for the ongoing migrant crisis and crafting voting logistics for Chicago’s first elected school board are among the pressing issues facing Illinois lawmakers as they return to Springfield on Tuesday for a four-month legislative session.

Adding a potentially complicating element to the session, which ends in May, is the March 19 primary, when all 118 Illinois House seats and 23 of the Illinois Senate’s 59 seats are on the ballot. Legislators are generally loath to confront controversial issues in an election year.

The primary comes less than two weeks before legislators face a self-imposed deadline to approve a new 20-district map for the first Chicago Public Schools elected board, an issue they left hanging last spring and again in the fall after Democrats who control both legislative chambers failed to reach an agreement.

Something has to get done this time around, as the school board election is set for November. At the same time, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers have to decide how big of a role the state government should play in assisting Chicago with an even more immediate issue, the thousands of asylum-seekers who have been sent to the city by governors in Texas and other border states.

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said the migrant issue “is going to be top of everyone’s mind.”

“We know that the lines that have been tapped are going to be a part of that conversation as well,” the Hillside Democrat said. “We’re going to keep our options on the table and have frank conversations with our caucus, the Senate president, the governor and other stakeholders. We have to.”

The state has already directed $640 million toward the migrant issue, a figure that includes $160 million Pritzker announced in November. That money was aimed at unclogging bottlenecks in Chicago’s shelter system that were hindering efforts to connect migrants with housing and jobs through the construction of a centralized intake center and more robust legal and employment assistance.

The $160 million came out of the Illinois Department of Human Services’ budget. Pritzker’s office has said it hopes the legislature will plug that hole in the agency’s budget with money from an estimated $1.4 billion revenue bump the state is expecting during the budget year.

“We want to make sure we’re filling all the buckets that we’ve drawn from in order to make sure we’re dealing with the crisis,” Pritkzer told reporters last week.

The migrant issue figures to further complicate budget talks as the legislature works toward a new spending plan for the year beginning July 1. Not a single Republican voted for the $50.4 billion budget approved by Democrats last May. And House Republican Leader Tony McCombie last week questioned the appropriation of funds toward the migrant crisis when veterans and other longer-term residents also face housing issues in the state.

“I think that comes back to what is the point of taxpayer dollars and who is it to serve?” said McCombie, of Savanna, whose superminority GOP caucus consists of 40 lawmakers. “You’re going to see a lot of sleight of hand and moving of money, I believe. It’ll be a real interesting budget.”

But even among Democrats there is some reluctance to provide further funding for the migrant crisis without addressing long-standing issues involving poverty and the unhoused in Illinois, Senate President Don Harmon said.

“After saying for generations that we don’t have enough money to deal with real and similar issues affecting people here in the state, there’s no way we could advance an appropriation bill that dealt only with the newly arrived migrants,” said Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, echoing concerns that have been raised by some members of the legislature’s Black Caucus.

“If we’re going to provide funding to deal with that crisis, we’re going to have to provide funding for crises that have existed in our communities for generations,” Harmon said. “I don’t see an appetite to solve one problem while ignoring others that have been at the forefront of people’s agendas for decades.”

It’s possible discussions about additional funding for migrants will be rolled into the larger negotiations over next year’s state budget, Harmon said.

Pritzker and other officials have called on President Joe Biden’s administration for federal funding to aid in the migrant crisis without much success.

“There’s no definitive answer on this,” Welch said last week. “It will be a part of our ongoing budget process.”

Heading into budget negotiations, the state continues to project a rosier economic picture for the current year.

The latest update from the legislature’s bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability showed state revenues were up about 3% — or more than $700 million — through the first half of the budget year, a trend that could alleviate some fiscal pressure if it continues.

And even with increased costs totaling nearly $1 billion, the governor’s office expects to end the budget year on June 30 with a surplus of $422 million.

State officials late last year also touted Illinois’ ninth credit rating upgrade within a two-year period, enabling the state to borrow money at a lower interest rate than before and potentially enjoy millions of dollars in savings.

But if the migrant crisis persists through the summer, the state could face an even more difficult challenge to fund the relief effort. For the budget year that begins July 1, the governor’s office in November projected a shortfall of nearly $900 million based on pension contributions and other costs rising faster than projected revenue. That figure would have to be made up through some combination of spending cuts or tax increases.

Senate Republican leader John Curran, of Downers Grove, said GOP support for the budget will be contingent on “more transparency to the spending of the governor” on items including the migrant crisis and a health care program for other individuals in Illinois who are not U.S. citizens.

“We’re going to work that process again with the Senate Democrats. I think it was a good process” last year, Curran said. “I think we took several steps forward.”

Chicago school board

The shift to an elected school board in Chicago still awaits the legislature’s approval of both a 20-district map and the methodology for electing board members.

During their fall veto session, lawmakers from both chambers agreed on a map that would create seven majority-Black districts, six majority-Latino districts, five majority-white districts and two in which no group has a majority.

But the separate bills in each chamber differed on the process for conducting the first round of balloting.

The House plan more closely aligned with the 2021 law that created the elected board, with half of the 20 members elected in November and the remaining 10 and a board president appointed by the city’s mayor. CPS would transition to a fully elected board after the 2026 election.

The Senate plan, put forward by Harmon as the fall session was drawing to a close, called for all 20 board members to be elected to two-year terms in November, with the mayor appointing the board president. After two years, all 20 seats would again be on the ballot, as would the citywide board president seat. Also in 2026, there would be a nonpartisan primary, from which the top two vote-getters for each position would advance to the general election.

Board members would be chosen for staggered two-year and four-year terms, and the entire board would be up for election again in 2032, after new boundaries are drawn to account for the results of the 2030 census.

Harmon, who brokered a compromise that created the original law’s gradual transition from an appointed board to an elected one, surprised many involved in the negotiations by abruptly changing course in the fall.

House Democrats, acknowledging the Chicago Teachers Union’s opposition to Harmon’s bill, did not act on the Senate-passed measure. Publicly, they said there wasn’t enough time to digest the new proposal before the legislature was scheduled to adjourn.

Heading into this year’s session, the issue remains under negotiation, Harmon said.

“We’re still wrestling with the best way to implement this to ensure maximum representation from all voters in the city,” Harmon said. “We’re waiting for clear direction from the city of Chicago, from Chicago Public Schools and from the Chicago Teachers Union as to how they think we should best proceed. We are open to all good ideas to get this done as quickly as possible.”

While the deadline for lawmakers to come up with a school district map has already been extended once, Welch expressed optimism that the legislature will come to a solution before it’s up again in 2 ½ months.

“I just believe we have to trust our processes and we’ll continue to work and to reach an agreement on the final details,” Welch said. “In this business, sometimes deadlines are what makes things happen.”

New childhood agency proposed

One item on Pritzker’s legislative agenda is the creation of a new early childhood agency that would consolidate work now handled by three separate entities, including the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The new agency would put under one umbrella functions such as early intervention for children with disabilities and developmental delays from the Department of Human Services, preschool programs overseen by the Illinois State Board of Education, and day care licensing responsibilities handled by DCFS.

The creation of a new agency, which would require legislative approval, is intended to cut red tape for both families who need services for their children and the outside agencies who provide them, according to the Pritzker administration.

Lawmakers and advocates have long discussed the idea of reassigning day care licensing to another agency to allow DCFS to better focus on its primary child welfare responsibilities, such as abuse and neglect investigations.

Republicans have been critical of DCFS under Pritzker’s watch. The governor earlier this month tapped Heidi Mueller, a veteran of the state’s juvenile justice system, to take over as the agency’s director. The appointment requires approval by the state Senate.

McCombie said a change at the top of DCFS isn’t enough.

“There’s real systematic reform that needs to be done there, and looking at how we protect our most vulnerable kids,” McCombie said. “She’s going to have her hands full for sure.”

Bears stadium?

Another issue that was left hanging last year involved possible financial incentives for a new Chicago Bears stadium.

Bills on that issue went nowhere, and the Bears are still flirting with a number of Chicago-area municipalities. The presumed site has been on land the team purchased in northwest suburban Arlington Heights, but team CEO Kevin Warren earlier this month talked about the possibility of staying in Chicago.

Pritzker has indicated that he doesn’t support taxpayer money going toward a new Bears stadium. Welch last week said he has not heard of any legislative action related to the team going into the new year.

“I have had no conversations regarding the Bears or any legislation that would be coming up in 2024,” Welch said. “No one’s brought that to my attention.”