Illinois considers special session for federal school aid

Doug Finke

Illinois lawmakers might have to return to Springfield in a special session if the state wants to spend more than $400 million in education aid it expects to receive from Washington.

Then again, maybe they won’t.

State officials were scrambling Wednesday to figure out just what they need to do and when in order for the cash-strapped state to tap into federal aid money approved by Congress Tuesday. The additional aid is expected to bring $550 million in Medicaid money to Illinois, along with the $400 million in education funds.

In a newsletter sent to school districts Monday, state School Superintendent Christopher Koch said lawmakers must act.

“We believe that if the spending measure becomes law, the Illinois General Assembly would have to come back to Springfield to pass a supplemental appropriation and these funds would likely be distributed through General State Aid,” Koch wrote.

Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to be in session again until after the November election when they return for the veto session. Either Gov. Pat Quinn on his own or Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, together could call lawmakers back in special session before then.

‘Too early’ for decision

“We know some people feel (a special session is needed), but from our perspective we are reviewing the legislation, so it’s too early to make that decision,” said Kelly Kraft, spokeswoman for Quinn’s budget office, in a written statement. “It will probably be a few days before that decision is made.”

The reason legislative action could be required is because of the mechanics of the budget process. When lawmakers approve a state budget, they are authorizing the state to spend up to a certain amount in specific areas, like education or health care or public safety. The $400 million in federal education money wasn’t anticipated when lawmakers approved the budget, so at some point they have to formally authorize the spending.

But state officials also aren’t sure exactly when the state will see the money. In the case of the education money, states, including Illinois, have to submit applications for it. Although Illinois is confident it will get the money, paperwork must be filled out first, said State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover.

“The feds do not give you money with no strings attached,” he said.

Vanover said the department is still reviewing details of the bill.

“We’ll work as quickly as possible to ensure that we fill this out in a timely fashion,” he said.

State aid formula

The House Democratic staff is also poring over the bill to determine what lawmakers must do to spend the money, said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.

“There appears to be some time frame, but it is not all spelled out,” Brown said. “Whether or not there needs to be a special session we’ll have to get into when we get better answers.”

The money probably will be directed into the general state aid formula for schools, which gives districts the widest latitude for spending. The general state aid budget is $4.6 billion, just slightly less than last year.

General state aid is also one of the few state obligations that is consistently paid on time. The state does owe $760 million to schools for other education grants, according to the comptroller’s office.

Lawmakers do not have to return to approve spending the $500 million in Medicaid money approved by Congress. They had anticipated getting an extra $750 million from Washington and included that amount in the budget.

Quinn had said that the Medicaid shortfall was behind his decision to impose 24 furlough days on non-union state workers. Kraft said Wednesday the furlough order still stands.

Doug Finke can be reached at 217-788-1527.