Gov. Quinn proposes new state budget

Higher education was one of the few areas that had a positive outlook in Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget address Wednesday afternoon. Even with some bright news, lawmakers were almost silent throughout the address that lasted for about 30 minutes.

Despite calling for prison closures and cutbacks to Medicaid, Quinn proposed a $50 million increase to the Monetary Assistance Program, which provides grants to students who demonstrate a financial need. Quinn told the General Assembly that during a time when the student loan debt is more than credit card debt, “too many deserving Illinois students are denied access.”

“While nearly 150,000 Illinois students received state MAP scholarships last year to attend college, just as many qualified applicants were denied because of lack of funding,” Quinn said. “We must invest in their brainpower.”

University spokesman Tom Hardy said if lawmakers support the proposal, it will be greatly beneficial to public universities, where it “could provide additional financial aid for students … to attend college and graduate in a timely fashion.” The push for financial aid comes at a time when the University is considering restructuring its admissions and financial aid to reach out to highly recruited and underrepresented students.

The University increased its tuition by 4.8 percent at the Board of Trustee’s January meeting. Along with fees and housing rates, an in-state undergraduate at the Urbana campus next year will pay more than $24,000 per year to attend the University.

Quinn also addressed another concern for university presidents and chancellors during his annual budget address: pensions.

He has set a date in mid-April for a pensions working group to report to him. Quinn said only 22 percent of the $5.2 billion pension cost this year is for the retirement costs of state employees. Of that, more than three quarters is for teachers who are working at public schools – ranging from elementary education to higher education.

“We need to do pension reform in a way that’s meaningful, constitutional and fair to the employees who have faithfully contributed to the system,” Quinn said.

University President Michael Hogan has said cutting benefits in the pension system could drive away highly recruited faculty members.

But Quinn did not rule anything out, indicating that public employees could have to face reduced benefits or contribute more than the current system.

“We can do this in a way that does pass constitutional muster. But everything has to be on the table,” he said. “When it comes to solving our pension challenges, everybody must be in and nobody left out.”

He criticized the previous lawmakers and governors for not investing enough, saying that the “lack of fiscal accountability has cost us dearly today.” According to the University’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Illinois’ pensions system is the most underfunded in the country.

However, Illinois’ Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka was disappointed that Quinn did not address specifics about the “state’s biggest budget eaters,” speaking also of Medicaid, which Quinn proposed cutting by $2.7 billion to restructure the program.

“I appreciate his stated intention of working with the General Assembly to find solutions, but hoped that he would share more of his vision in this budget proposal. At the end of the day, nothing else matters until Illinois deals with those costs,” Topinka said in a press release.

Also Wednesday, in an attempt to reduce the record state deficit, Quinn proposed cutting more than 60 state facilities that will result in more than 1,000 layoffs. The Department of Corrections will face the closings of two prisons, six adult transition centers and two Juvenile Justice youth centers. Health centers will also take a hit with the closings of two mental health hospitals and two developmental disability centers.

During his address, Quinn was short on details about how he intends to fix some of the problems he mentioned. But even with the proposal Wednesday, lawmakers can change the budget in the coming months.

“I’m here today to tell you the truth. This budget contains truths that may not be what you want to hear,” Quinn said in joint session to the Illinois Senate and House members to begin his address. “Today, our rendezvous with reality has arrived.”

_Maggie Huynh contributed to this report._