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State budget hits school transportation

Illinois Gov. PQuinn

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn

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Updated: October 29, 2011 12:39AM

The state budget signed into law late Thursday includes spending cuts in school transportation that will cost Elgin School District U46 $1 million, according to the district.

Gov. Pat Quinn enacted the $32.9 billion state budget, but made cuts totaling $712.5 million that targeting schools and hospitals that serve low-income patients.

“With these reductions, I am implementing smart efficiencies that support Illinois on its continuing path to fiscal and economic recovery,” Quinn said in a prepared statement announcing his move.

The bulk of the governor’s cuts came from areas Quinn said had been “double appropriated” in the budget package, with aides describing that as programs that had been mistakenly funded twice. That total amounted to $336 million.

The governor also took an ax to $89 million in funding that would have reimbursed suburban and downstate school districts for their transportation costs.

Already, school districts like U46 are only partly reimbursed by the state for transporting regular education and special education students to and from its schools, the district has said. And those districts still must provide transportation for students and pay for fuel and maintenance, U46 spokesman Tony Sanders said Friday.

“School transportation by its nature is a local function for parents and local school districts,” said David Vaught, Quinn budget director. “They can get their kids to school.”

Sanders countered that the decision to bus all students who live more than 1.5 miles from school is not local, but state law. U46 Superintendent Jose Torres had asked for flexibility on that distance in his testimony earlier this year before the Illinois Senate Appropriations Committee, the spokesman said.

Now, with rising fuel prices and other costs of transportation, the Elgin school district will have to look at other ways to cut its transportation spending, though at this time it is not sure what those might be, according to Sanders.

“The state still owes us $18 million for last school year, which ended last month. A lot of that was transportation,” Sanders said.

“The bottom line is if the state doesn’t pay, it doesn’t matter what it puts in its budget.”

Carpentersville-area Community Unit School District 300 offices are closed Fridays throughout the summer as a cost-saving measure, and officials were unavailable to comment on the budget.

Bureaucratic trimming

Also on the education front, Quinn cut another $11.3 million in “bureaucracy costs” by trimming salaries for regional school superintendents.

“Line by line, I have carefully examined the budget passed by the General Assembly and identified areas for improvement and reduction,” Quinn said. “I also re-prioritized government spending to protect our state’s core principles.”

Hospitals that serve the poor also would get hit under Quinn’s proposed changes by seeing state Medicaid reimbursements cut by $276 million, though his administration emphasized inner-city “safety-net” medical centers aren’t affected by the move.

The governor failed to persuade lawmakers to cut Medicaid reimbursements rates during the spring, so his cut in Medicaid spending could have the effect of simply pushing those health-care bills off to the 2012-2013 budget year, meaning hospitals would have to wait to be paid even longer.

A spokesman stressed the cuts would not cause any hospital in Illinois to close.

Quinn’s spending reductions could be reversed by the Democratic-led House and Senate by simple majority votes, rather than the three-fifths margin required of non-budgetary vetoes.

The governor’s move goes in the opposite direction of Senate Democrats, who had sought to increase spending in the budget package by more than $400 million but saw that approach shot down by a bi-partisan House coalition.

One of that caucus’ top budget people, Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, said he was still digesting the particulars of Quinn’s spending reductions but did not automatically rule them out.

“We’re supportive of the governor’s efforts to cut spending and reduce expenses in the state to save taxpayers money. We just need to look at these and evaluate these cuts,” Kotowski said.

Sun-Times staff writer Dave McKinney contributed to this story.

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