SPRINGFIELD — Democrats on Wednesday came up two votes shy of overriding Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a bill to authorize $721 million to fund tuition grants and community colleges.
The override attempt was successful in the Senate, where 37 Democrats backed it, giving it one vote more than necessary to send it on to the House.
In the House, Democrats put up only 69 of the 71 votes required. Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood, voted against override, and Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, was absent.
No Republican in either chamber voted in favor of overriding the governor’s veto.
The final votes were 37 to 17 in the Senate, with two members voting present, and 69 to 48 in the House, with one member, Arroyo, listed as an excused absence. The legislation, Senate Bill 2043, is now dead.
Higher education — including operating money for community colleges and universities and the Monetary Award Program grants to help low-income students with tuition — has gone unfunded in fiscal year 2016, which is now two-thirds in the past.
The Rauner-led GOP and the supermajority Democrats in the General Assembly have been unable to reach a budget agreement, nor have they been able to come to a deal on Rauner’s calls for what he considers essential reforms to the state’s business and political environments.
Debate was sometimes harsh Wednesday as Democrats pitched passage of the money for MAP grants and community colleges as keeping the state’s promise to students who most need help to get a college education.
Republicans, however, said Democrats were perpetrating a hoax on students and taxpayers. With the state sitting on a stack of unpaid bills totaling $7.4 billion, there’s simply no money to cover a $721 million spending authorization, they said.
Overriding the governor's veto, Republican lawmakers argued, would simply be putting students and community colleges in competition with human service providers awaiting payments, and even with the state’s grade schools and high schools. And, they argued, the legislation does little for universities.
“You’re more interested in scoring political points on this than you are in doing the hard work of solving this problem,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said that wasn’t the case.
“All we’re doing with this bill is authorizing him (Gov. Rauner) to spend as much money as he thinks he can squeeze out to help out the universities,” Cullerton said.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, said the money promised in the legislation simply isn’t there, and overriding the governor’s veto would only be a deceitful nod toward funding higher education.
“The public’s been duped,” Durkin said. “There’s $7.4 billion in unpaid bills that are sitting at the comptroller's office. This (spending authorization) is going to the back of that line. It’s just not going to get the job done.”
Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, rose to say a community college in his district had laid off 55 people only the previous evening.
“I don’t know how you explain a ‘no’ vote on this,” Bradley said. “I stand in support of the override of the veto. Let’s get these schools funded.”
Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, said the state must get control of spending and actually balance the overall budget.
"Until we address pension reform, we’re never going to address the main problems with our budget,” she said. “You cannot spend 25 percent of general revenues on pensions and expect to be able to fund everything else.”
“On higher education, let’s be clear here,” Ives said. “We spend as much for higher education pensions as we do for higher education operational costs.”
Drury, the lone Democrat not to support the override motion, said members from both parties need to stop taking votes to make themselves feel good or to include in their campaign literature.
He argued rank-and-file lawmakers must look for a true solution to the budget deficit and the impasse or admit to themselves they are only allowing their respective party leaders to keep the stalemate going for their own purposes.
“As long as there is no pressure … they are empowered to keep this impasse going. And they have done that since June,” he said.
“The answer is to stop empowering this leadership that keeps thrusting this upon us, because if we don’t give them an out, we can get a solution,” Drury said.
“We have to be accountable,” Drury said. “We have to do our jobs, we have to have courage, (and) we have stop being wimps.”
After the House vote, Rauner’s office issued a statement urging lawmakers to stay in Springfield and work out a compromise to fund higher education.
“Despite the governor's request that the General Assembly not waste time with a political vote that was never going to pass, the legislature is poised to leave students, universities and community colleges in the lurch for at least a month,” said Catherine Kelly, the governor’s press secretary.
“We continue to urge Democratic leaders not to recess until the General Assembly passes a bipartisan proposal to fund MAP and higher education,” Kelly said.
Later Wednesday evening, Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said a proposal will be put forward.
He said forthcoming amendments to existing bills contain “an agreed funding source and appropriations for higher education, MAP and a number of human service programs at the same level as was approved by the legislature in May 2015.”