Who Is In Charge

Fiscal panel starts to make choices

The statehouse commission assigned to study the state’s uncertain financial future is being asked to recommend – two more studies.

CapFiscalStab101509Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder and chair of the Long-Term Fiscal Stability Commission, asked members Thursday for their support of three measures he wants considered by the 2010 legislature. They are:

• Creation of a 23-member appointed commission to review the conflicting financial provisions in the state’s constitution. Under Heath’s plan, the legislature would have to submit creation of the commission to the voters in November 2010. If voters approved the panel, it would study the issue and could submit proposed changes directly to the voters in 2012. “We have all of these issues out there, and I don’t think in the framework of the legislature we can solve them,” Heath said. “It would create a third way to amend the constitution.”

(A loose coalition of civic groups already is working on a possible fiscal fix for submission to voters in 2011.)

• A resolution through which the legislature would create a privately funded expert panel to study the state’s entire tax system. The panel would report back to the legislature with recommendations by the beginning of 2011 “so the legislature can deal with those issues and put something on the 2011 ballot.” Heath estimated the cost at $1 to $1.5 million.

• A bill that would give state colleges and universities greater flexibility in how they spend their budgets. “That bill is being worked on … I can’t be as specific as I can be on the others,” Heath said. “It doesn’t, I guess, give them all the freedom they want.” For example, Heath said, he hasn’t decided whether to include college flexibility to set tuition rates. “I’m struggling with that, frankly.”

The committee is on a tight deadline. It doesn’t meet again until Nov. 4 and 5, but the five bills it’s allowed to propose have to be sent to members of the Legislature Council on Nov. 6. Only the commission’s six legislator members are allowed to vote on bills.

Thursday those lawmakers voted 4-2 (Dems vs. GOP) to have Heath’s fiscal reform idea drafted and 6-0 for drafting of the tax study and higher education flexibility measures.

The lawmakers also agreed unanimously to have these other ideas drafted as possible bills: Rainy day fund legislation, creation of dedicated funding sources for state building maintenance and highways, establishment of an office of regulatory reform and elimination of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. (That last one was suggested by citizen commissioner Kirvin Knox, a retired CSU administrator.)

The legislator members will vote at the next meeting on which bills to forward to legislative leaders.

The commission was created by the 2009 legislature – after a fair amount of partisan wrangling – and has spent nine previous day-long meetings listening to hours of number-filled testimony by state agency heads, economists and advocates.

As part of that fact-finding process, state agency heads were asked to estimate their “ideal” budgets. Commission staffers toted up those wish lists and told the committee Thursday that the “ideal” state budget would be about $27 billion a year, compared to about $18.5 billion now.

Also Thursday, commission members finally got the chance to speak individually.

While the comments highlighted some of the ideological differences among commission members, they also reflected at least some broad agreement on issues like the need for a state rainy day fund, better support of higher education, studying the state’s tax system and being more strategic and results-oriented about state spending.

Here are some snippets of what members said, in the order they spoke:

Carol Boigon, Denver City Council member – “We want a lot of things and we don’t want to pay for them. We are delivering less than our people want … but frankly more than we can pay for right now.”

Amy Oliver Cooke, conservative talk shøw host – “The numbers are seriously dizzying. … I do disagree that more money automatically means better services … the question is how we spend it.”

Renny Fagan, CEO Colorado Non-profit Association – “Our path is unsustainable unless we make significant changes. … Our revenue system is inadequate and constitutional conflicts need to be fixed. … In the end those two issues will be resolved by the voters.”

Marty Neilson, president Colorado Union of Taxpayers – “We need to think about cutting spending. …I thank God every morning and I thank Douglas Bruce for TABOR.”

Sean Conway, Weld County commissioner –  “Much of the current funding crisis will resolve itself as the economy comes back,” but the legislature needs more flexibility, and the state tax code needs a thorough review.

Knox – “We don’t have enough resources to do the things we need. … I do think we need to do a tax study.”

Timothy Hume, Walsh rancher and banker – “We should continue to be a low-tax state, but we also can’t continue on the path we’re on. There is a middle ground.”

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen – “I really am concerned about spending our children’s future.”

Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver – “We really have to understand what the people of this state truly want. … I truly believe we do not have the revenue in this state for what the people think they want.”

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray – “I believe the amount of money we will be allowed to spend … is an adequate amount of revenue to fund the core functions of government over the long run.”

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs – “For the past 30 years we’ve had a really condescending view of government … we constantly lose sight of how government benefits us. … Government does an awful lot right.”

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, vice chair – “At the end of the day we have to have a discussion about the amount of revenue we have in this state.”

Heath – “It’s absolutely inconceivable to me that we have one of the richest states … and not be able to provide for our citizens.”

Unable to attend Thursday’s meeting were citizen members Jonathan Coors, government relations director of CoorsTek;  Donna Lynn, president of Kaiser Permanente Colorado, and Cris White, COO of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.

Use this link for a directory of stories that includes reports on past commission meetings.

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Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.