State Senator Jeff Schoenberg and State Representative Robyn Gabel met with School District 65 teachers on May 17.

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State Senator Jeff Schoenberg and State Representative Robyn Gabel spoke to a group of School District 65 teachers at the Joseph E. Hill Administration Building on May 17. The questions zeroed in on the proposed cuts in state funding for education and the state’s unfunded liability for teacher pensions.

The budget proposed by Governor Pat Quinn provides for cuts in education funding of about $1.3 billion from the amounts funded last year. Sen. Schoenberg said the legislature’s job, when they returned to Springfield, would be to raise revenues for schools to help reinstate many teachers who received reduction in force (RIF) notices throughout the state.

He said he was the chief sponsor of a bill that would increase the tax on cigarettes, which he said would generate nearly $1 billion in new state and matching federal funds. While these funds would be used exclusively to meet the State’s Medicaid obligations, it would enable the State to spend $1 billion from its general fund on education, he said. The Senate passed the bill last year, and is pending in the House.

Senator Schoenberg said he was working to gain ten additional votes needed to pass the increased cigarette tax in the House. Rep. Gabel said she would support the bill.

Senator Schoenberg said there was a lot of active support for House Bill 174, which would increase state income taxes and impose a tax on certain services. See the April 28th issue of the RoundTable. While this would generate additional tax revenues, some of which could be devoted to education, it will not change the way the State funds education, he said. Property taxes would still remain the primary source of education funding.

Rep. Gabel said the State needs to address the way it funds education. “We need a state-wide task force on how we fund education,” she said.

Teachers were also concerned about the unfunded pension liabilities and concerned the State might not make a payment to fund pensions this year. In a press release issued in March, Senator Schoenberg cited the Pew Center’s estimate that pegged the State’s unfunded liability to the state’s pension systems (including the teacher’s pension fund) at $74 billion.

He said one way or another the State will make payments owed to the pension funds this year, even if it required borrowing the money by issuing short-term bonds.

Senator Schoenberg said he sponsored legislation that would require the State to automatically make additional payments to fund its outstanding liability to the pension funds if the economy improves, defined in the legislation as a time when the Employment Cost Index exceeds 2 percent. He said this would force the State to fund the pensions at a higher rate in good times.

Jean Luft, president of the District Educators’ Council (the teachers’ union) asked whether funding for pre-K education would be reinstated, saying this was a “big loss.” Rep. Gabel said they will know by May 31 if there is state money for pre-k education. “If we don’t know by then, we are in serious trouble,” she said.