CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker, Bailey make pitch to farmers

CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker, Bailey make pitch to farmers

By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

SPRINGFIELD – The candidates for Illinois governor faced questioning about their agriculture-related policies Wednesday in an outbuilding on a McLean County farm.

The Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable – put together by a coalition of more than 100 of the state’s agriculture stakeholders – took place at Schuler Farms in rural Lexington. The event was moderated by Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr.

Gov. JB Pritzker highlighted his administration’s wide-ranging infrastructure bill, defended his signature on a massive decarbonization bill and highlighted the progress toward fiscal stability the state has seen in his time in office.

His challenger, state Sen. Darren Bailey, meanwhile, sought to discredit the state’s fiscal progress, dismissed the energy bill as a collection of “virtue signals” and said Illinois was starting to look like Baghdad.

The last comment came in reference to the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, signed into law by Pritzker last year, which aims to put 1 million electric vehicles on state roads by 2030 and take carbon-emitting energy generators offline in the state by 2045.

The law seeks to accomplish that by massive ratepayer subsidies for renewable and nuclear energy and forced closure of fossil fuel plants over the next two decades.

Bailey said that law has led to a threat of brownouts in areas of downstate Illinois that are part of the MISO regional transmission organization that purchases energy capacity for 15 states. MISO representatives, however, testified at a committee hearing earlier this year that the early retirement of out-of-state fossil fuel plants, not the passage of CEJA, led to higher downstate energy prices and warnings of potential brownouts.

“MISO has fallen down on the job,” Pritzker said. “That’s why Illinois had to pick up the pace in solar and wind and make sure that we’re producing more energy, not less. That is what the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act does. It helps us produce more energy.”

PRITZKER FACT CHECK: It was also in relation to the energy bill that Pritzker accused Bailey of lying to members of the forum about one of the provisions in the bill that the Illinois Farm Bureau had hotly contested.

The point of contention had to do with eminent domain, a process that allows governments to procure private property while giving the property owner little power other than to negotiate a price.

While the climate bill was ultimately stripped of provisions that would have given counties the power to invoke eminent domain for wind and solar projects, the final bill did include a provision that allows a private transmission line to invoke the authority in seven counties.

Democratic lawmakers at the time said the language, included on page 673 of the public act, applies to the Grain Belt Express, a transmission line owned by the private company Invenergy. The language in the bill states that a project of Grain Belt’s magnitude “shall be deemed” a public use line, giving the company the ability to invoke eminent domain if needed.

The counties named in the bill are Pike, Scott, Greene, Macoupin, Montgomery, Christian, Shelby, Cumberland and Clark.

While Bailey said he believed the bill forced coal and natural gas offline too early, the eminent domain provision was enough for him to vote against it.

Pritzker, in his discussion at the forum, incorrectly claimed any eminent domain language was stricken from the bill. Asked by a reporter after the forum about the Grain Belt Express provision, Pritzker said he was “talking about eminent domain broadly.”

Invenergy, meanwhile, has held town halls and said eminent domain would be a last resort with the vast majority of their interactions with property owners ending amicably.

OTHER POLICIES: Pritzker continued to tout the $45 billion capital infrastructure bill that includes money for broadband infrastructure and all modes of transportation. It’s a program Bailey opposed while in the General Assembly.

“We’re going to be building our roads and our bridges, and our airports, and our ports all across the state of Illinois so you can more easily get your goods to market across the board,” Pritzker said. “Take note that the majority of the dollars that we’re putting into infrastructure are invested downstate.”

Bailey, meanwhile, continued to assert that state finances can be improved with “zero-based budgeting,” a concept of justifying every dollar spent up front rather than carrying over costs from a previous budget year.

He said he’d fill government agencies with businesspeople.

* * *

SCHOOL FUNDING: Five years ago this month, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation that overhauled the way public schools in the state are funded.

The goal of the new formula is to gradually bring all districts up to an “adequate” level of funding, or having enough resources to cover the cost of providing the educational services the state expects. That takes into account a district’s total enrollment, poverty rate, the number of English language learners and a host of other factors.

Five years later, huge disparities still exist among districts, both in funding and academic performance, but lawmakers from both parties who were part of negotiating the new law say it has provided huge benefits, especially to those schools that were most underfunded.

“I use the example of East St. Louis, that I think at the time had the highest property tax rate but was nowhere near adequate spending,” said Andy Manar, a former state senator and now deputy governor who was a chief architect of the plan. “And if you did the math at the time…they literally could not tax themselves into equity.”

In fiscal year 2018, the first year under the formula, the East St. Louis district was funded at 66 percent of adequacy. This year, it is funded at 96 percent of adequacy.

Illinois has traditionally relied on local property taxes to fund most educational spending. That has automatically led to built-in inequities because districts with relatively low levels of property wealth per-pupil must levy higher tax rates to raise the same amount of money as wealthier district.

Each year, under the new law, the state is to add at least $350 million in new funding for schools, with the bulk of that money going to those furthest from adequacy. So far in the first five years, the state has met or exceeded that funding target in all but one year, raising the state’s share of school funding from $6.9 billion in fiscal year 2017, the last year under the old formula, to $9.8 billion allocated this year.

It also drove the state’s percentage of K-12 education upward, according to ISBE data. In FY 2017, the state provided 24.4 percent of K-12 funding. In FY 2020, the latest year for which audited numbers are available, that number rose to 27 percent.

According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, it would still take another $3.6 billion in state funding this year alone to bring all districts up to 90 percent of “adequate” funding, a goal set in statute. But the state has made some progress toward addressing the needs of the least-funded districts.

In the first year of evidence-based funding, there were 168 districts that were funded at less than 60 percent of adequacy. Those were the ones that were first in line for new funding when the EBF formula took effect.

For the upcoming year, there are only two districts below that level, both funded at 59 percent of adequacy.

During the first year, funding levels ranged from a low of 47 percent to a high of 288 percent of adequacy. This year, the gap ranges from 59 percent to 270 percent.

So far, though, there is little evidence that the new money has helped improve academic performance for students because the COVID-19 pandemic severely interfered with annual testing in 2020 and 2021.

Like many states, Illinois did not administer state assessments in 2020 due to the pandemic, and results from the 2021 tests are believed to have been affected by the pandemic. Results of the 2022 tests will be released later this year.

Prior to the pandemic, though, the connection between school funding and student achievement was evident.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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