Illinois college students relieved MAP grants available again

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Emma Sheikh has taken many steps to get the degree she’s paying for herself at Columbia College a whole year early — before she can legally drink a beer.

She packed her high school schedule with dual credit and AP classes, and takes summer classes at Harold Washington College at a fraction of Columbia’s prices. She works about five hours a day before starting the school day, clocking in at a downtown clothing store at 5 a.m.

So last year, when a budget-less state of Illinois didn’t release any money for MAP grants for the 100,000-plus college students who depend on them, Sheikh snagged a costly private loan to stay in school. With a single mom at home in Joliet, a sister also in college and the 25-hour-a-week job, Sheikh didn’t know how else to pay her out-of-pocket costs, which had been an affordable $1,500 a semester.

“I heavily rely on financial aid from the school and from the government and student loans,” the 19-year-old said. “The MAP grant went through my first year of school … Last year was the year it didn’t go through, and Columbia announced they weren’t able to cover us until the budget was secured. I had to pay out it of pocket, almost tripling my out-of-pocket costs.”

Halted at times during the two-year state budget impasse, MAP money is flowing once again to Illinois’ colleges. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced late last week the release of $327 million for the need-based MAP program that will help at least 110,000 Illinois residents attending college pay their tuition.

Students like Sheikh are relieved — and will be reimbursed last year’s MAP costs, too.

“The state’s institutions of higher education were devastated by the budget crisis,” Mendoza said in a news release. “Delivering this money will provide immediate aid to students, parents, faculty and administrators who have struggled for more than two years to pay their bills.”

The Monetary Award Program grants help the state’s neediest students attend in-state institutions of higher education, and come with income and academic requirements. Freezing them “turned financial aid on its head,” said Lynne Baker of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers the grants. “These are students who by definition don’t have the money to go to college.”

In fiscal year 2015, the average MAP award totaled $3,550 for students attending a public university, $3,923 for those going to a private, non-profit college and $944 for community college students.

Baker said she expects that some 120,000 students will be served for the 2016-17 school year that just ended; and for the upcoming school year, legislators increased the total to $401 million.

“We’re really hopeful able to serve more students with that,” she said. “The good thing is, if you got a MAP award on your financial award letter for this fall, you can rely on the fact that the money will be there.”

While the money wasn’t there last year, some colleges and universities found ways to float their students when MAP money didn’t come through.

The University of Illinois at Chicago covered $32 million last year — and took a financial risk in doing so, said Janet Parker, associate chancellor for budget and resource planning at the college that’s the largest recipient of MAP funding.

“We were just hoping they were going to make good on their promise like they did the previous year,” she said, adding that UIC wanted to keep up enrollment and spare its neediest students.

Fortunately, the state’s budget came through just in time, since the university could not have absorbed a $32 million loss, Parker said.

Northwestern University also awarded its MAP-eligible students the equivalent of their state grants last year, dipping into the private university’s endowment earnings and other sources, said Alan Cubbage, vice president for communications.

“There was no impact on Northwestern students from the loss of MAP funding,” Cubbage said.

But when Eastern Illinois University floated MAP grants for its students, it deferred maintenance and laid off hundreds of staffers.

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July 16, 2017 at 09:35AM

Illinois college students relieved MAP grants available again

With Illinois budget deal secured, public universities still face challenges

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For the first time in more than two years, Illinois’ public universities can start the school year with the promise of state money from Springfield.

Illinois went 736 days without a budget when lawmakers overrode Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a spending plan and tax hike July 6. State universities received a fraction of their typical state funding before the spigot was shut off in 2017 — spurring campus shutdowns, layoffs, program cuts, maintenance failures and construction delays along the way.

School leaders shared the same reaction: relief. But while the budget satisfies many short-term needs, many say they face a daunting challenge to undo the havoc that the impasse wreaked upon the reputation and fiscal stability of public higher education in Illinois.

“You don’t get one year’s funding and have people say, ‘Oh, Illinois is totally fixed now,’ ” said Rachel Lindsey, interim president of Chicago State University. “I don’t think it would be in our best interest to think of ourselves as out of the woods just yet.”

Illinois sent more than $1.2 billion to the state’s 12 public universities in 2015, the last spending plan before the impasse. In the budget-less years, two stopgap bills in 2016 provided just $996 million in state support for public colleges over two years.

The new budget gives public universities about $1.1 billion for 2017-18, according to Illinois Board of Higher Education figures. That’s about 10 percent less than what those schools received in 2015, but still more than some college leaders were expecting.

The budget “will provide the certainty higher education leaders and supporters have been calling for to start moving Illinois forward again,” the education board’s chairman, Tom Cross, wrote in a memo this week. “All sectors of the state’s higher education system will benefit.”

But university leaders cautioned that the deal does not fully resolve the financial problems that schools endured.

Schools went nearly the entire 2015-16 year without a dime from the state, then received between one-fifth to one-half of their typical funding in the first stopgap bill in April 2016, just weeks before the end of the fiscal year. The spending plan provides no other funding for that year, leaving schools to swallow the burden it created in their finances.

The University of Illinois, for example, will have to go forward with a $467 million hole in its operations.

“We are still advocating for the restoration for the (fiscal year) 2016 budget,” U. of I. President Tim Killeen said at a board meeting Thursday. “Obviously the chances of that happening are diminishing over time.”

And at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, finances became so dire that the administration lent the campus dollars from the Edwardsville site to keep it running. President Randy Dunn said that kind of intra-system borrowing is no longer needed but Carbondale must continue with its plan to cut $19 million, which officials said includes eliminating dozens of staff and faculty.

Even with the additional money from Springfield, the university is in the hole $37.8 million for 2017.

The legislation is especially welcome for low-income students — those whose ability to attend college at all was put at risk because of underfunding of critical grants and scholarships. The deal boosts funding for Monetary Award Program grants by 10 percent: $401.3 million compared with $364.8 million from 2015, according to state data.

The bill also provides another $560.5 million to cover general operation costs for 2016-17. That, added with the second stopgap bill from June 2016, gives schools just over $1.2 billion — in line with a typical year of funding. MAP grants for last year, the costs of which some schools absorbed, are fully covered.

“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this funding,” said Joseph King, spokesman for Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where one-third of students receive MAP grants. “For them, knowing that MAP funding is guaranteed, without the caveat that they may someday be asked to pay it back, provides tremendous peace of mind and allows them to focus on their goal of earning a degree.”

Governors State University in University Park also covered MAP for its students during the impasse. About 1,200 Governors’ students received grants in 2015, comprising about 20 percent of its enrollment, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State, said school officials were dreading how to address the issue if state funding still was not available to reimburse the university for MAP costs.

“We know that our students, many of them first-generation, that they just wouldn’t come to school,” Maimon said. “The financial issues were so oppressive to them. We did everything we could to say we will cover you and that’s a top priority.”

Lynne Baker, spokeswoman for the student assistance commission, which oversees several grants including MAP, agreed that fully funding the assistance programs is critical to keeping students enrolled.

“Truly it is the uncertainty that made it so incredibly difficult for students,” Baker said. “For the last two years, we’ve really turned financial aid on its head. We asked the very students who don’t have the funds to put forward the funds if their school couldn’t do it.”

Now, some money is already hitting the pipeline.

On Thursday, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza released $327 million to pay 2016-17 MAP grants, according to a statement from her office. Another $36 million for MAP is going to community colleges.

Mendoza also said her office has started paying out $160 million for universities’ operational costs Thursday.

And with the money starting to flow, some cuts being considered for a third year of budget impasse now can be at least postponed.

Maimon said the board members had given her the authority to shut down Governors’ College of Education if money didn’t arrive in time. That is now off the table. Layoffs of about 180 full-time employees at Northeastern Illinois University have been paused, spokesman Michael Hines said.

Some university leaders said they are proceeding cautiously and delaying major moves until they know more precisely how much money for what is coming when.

“Because of future uncertainties and the far-reaching impact of the 700-plus day impasse, it is vital that we maintain Western’s ongoing fiscally conservative practices,” Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas wrote in a campus message.

Major credit agencies downgraded the ratings for nearly all the universities this summer, plunging several further into “junk” status. Poorer credit makes it more expensive to borrow for major projects.

The Higher Learning Commission, which oversees universities in 19 states, warned that schools unable to convincingly demonstrate financial health and provide quality academics could face sanctions.

State data show Illinois students are increasingly attending college in other Midwestern states. Some universities, like Indiana State University in Terra Haute, are targeting Illinoisans through special scholarships and reduced tuition.

“Those students who have decided to leave the state have already made that decision,” Northeastern Interim President Richard Helldobler said. “The rhetoric from a lot of our feeder schools has increased, and they’ve been very upfront about saying ‘We are encouraging students to go out of state.’ “

Considering how contentiously the budget came to fruition, school leaders said they must keep up their advocacy to avoid another potential impasse.

“It is important to keep that momentum going,” Illinois State University President Larry Dietz wrote in a campus message. “There may be a budget in place today, but it will take years of hard work to reverse the damage that has been done.”

drhodes@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rhodes_dawn

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July 16, 2017 at 06:06AM

With Illinois budget deal secured, public universities still face challenges

How Illinois became America’s failed state – Politico

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Illinois has compiled $14.6 billion in unpaid bills. It’s running a deficit of $6 billion and its pension liability has soared to $130 billion.

That’s not the worst of it. The state’s nearly two-year failure to pass a budget has sent its bond ratings careening toward junk level, downgraded a staggering eight notches below most other states.

Story Continued Below

With university enrollments plummeting, large-scale social service agencies shuttering and the Chicago Public Schools forced to borrow just to stay open through the end of this school year, Illinois is beginning to devolve into something like a banana republic — and it’s about to have the most expensive election the state has ever seen.

Democrats have flooded the primary to challenge GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, with billionaire J.B. Pritzker among them. Pritzker has already poured $14 million into his campaign for a general election that’s still 15 months away.

“Illinois is operating in a way 49 other states would never try to operate,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-partisan fiscal watchdog group. “There is permanent damage that is being done that will take decades to repair.”

The devastation of the state’s finances has taken its toll on Rauner politically, despite his investing heavily on TV, digital and robocall messaging — in 2016 alone, Rauner contributed more than $50 million to his upcoming campaign. In March, 58 percent of those polled reported having an unfavorable view of the Republican, according to a poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, up from 32 percent in 2015.

One of just five blue-state Republican governors, Rauner is widely viewed as the most vulnerable incumbent in the nation.

To troll Rauner about the budget, Pritzker’s campaign created “Tick Tock the Budget Clock” a character dressed as a clock, who follows Rauner at his public events carrying a sign that displays the number of days the state has gone without a budget.

As of Friday, it stood at 709 days, an unprecedented amount of time for a state to go without an operating budget.

“Illinois is a real outlier in the most striking way. The sheer size of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities … just looking at the state’s finances, its habit of deferring payments from one year to the next, has created a vicious circle,” said Ted Hampton, vice president with Moody’s Investment Services. “Illinois has had a very large negative balance both in absolute terms and relative to its budget for many years.”

What does the crisis all boil down to? It began with an ego-laden brawl between two powerful men: Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan. Rauner was elected in 2014 as the first Republican governor in Illinois in more than a decade, vowing to “shake up Springfield” in a campaign that demonized Madigan — the longest serving House speaker in state history — and targeted “corrupt union bosses.”

Upon taking office, Rauner, a multi-millionaire businessman, laid out a list of policy demands that initially included right to work elements, as a condition of signing a budget into law. Rauner wanted changes to laws affecting workers compensation, collective bargaining and state property taxes, among others. Democrats considered the agenda an attack on unions, which the governor had vilified, saying they had too much power in Illinois politics. Rauner called the measures pro-business, and necessary to address decades of financial mismanagement.

But Madigan, who has served as speaker under governors from both political parties, was loathe to condition the passage of a budget on the governor’s political agenda. Each side dug in, with unions rushing behind Madigan and Republicans, tired of being shut out for years by Madigan and thrilled to have a generous donor to their campaigns in the governor’s office, lined up behind Rauner.

Today, Madigan’s Democratic-majority House and the Republican governor remain entrenched in the war to end all political wars. The exception is the Democratic-controlled Senate, which ultimately voted on a tax increase before May 31 adjournment.

Both Rauner and Madigan counted on the other to cave. Neither has. Meantime, the state is drowning in debt, deficit spending and multiple bond rating downgrades.

It’s increasingly possible that Rauner — a wealthy businessman who promised he carried negotiation credibility and the know-how to fix the state’s finances — could complete his four-year term in office without ever having passed a budget. At that point, economic forecasts indicate the state’s unpaid bill pile would soar beyond $20 billion. The bill backlog was at about $6 billion when Rauner first took office.

To put it into perspective, the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature just overrode a veto by its governor from the same party that reversed the governor’s tax cuts and created $1.9 billion in revenue. Lawmakers there panicked after the state found itself $900 million in the hole — a drop in the bucket compared to Illinois.

Few Illinois state pols seem to be panicking. That could be a reflection of voters who don’t seem rattled.

Instead of voting on full-fledged budgets, including possibly increasing revenue, the governor and the General Assembly has signed off on stopgap spending plans. That means they’re cherry picking certain areas to fund — keeping schools open and roads paved.

“This impasse has been sort of cleverly positioned to diminish the immediate, obvious impacts on your middle class voters,” said Andrea Durbin, Chief Executive Officer on Illinois Collaboration on Youth said. “Those voters are being deceived because every single one of us is going to pay more every single day that this goes on. Having the DMV open, state parks, highway construction and K-12 open, it allows your sort of average middle class voter to be deceived about what is going on.”

Illinois has long been creative in how it pays its bills, long before Rauner took office. It has for years taken the politically palatable option of avoiding tax hikes while borrowing from pension funds, allowing its pension backlog to balloon and failing to sock away money for emergencies. Illinois is just one of nine states to not have a rainy day fund, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Last month, a group of protesters was so fed up with the stalemate that it took drastic measures to draw attention to the crisis. They walked 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield, stopping in towns along the way to talk about the budget. Once inside the capital, some demonstrators were dragged from the House chamber. In the evening, another group tied their wrists together, chanted traditional protest chants and sat in a circle outside the governor’s office before about three dozen were arrested.

The next day, the Illinois House adjourned without even calling a budget bill for a vote. A week later, the governor was touring the state — to talk about a property tax crisis. As for Madigan, he authorized public hearings which are underway now, to continue discussions — on a budget.

“No one has tried to do what Illinois is doing. Every other state has relied on the pressure that comes to bear on the governor and state legislators,” said the Civic Federation’s Msall.

With no solution in sight for the almost two-year budget standoff, both Rauner and Madigan have sought to flood political campaign accounts with record amounts of cash aimed at broadening their grasp over the Democratic-controlled Legislature. But pinning the blame on Rauner and Madigan is to simplify the crisis, observers say.

“Every single member of the General Assembly has a vote. We’ve been asking for a long time, who do we blame? When we started, we went and visited over 40 legislators in both parties and said, please don’t do this. Exclusively, they’d say: ‘it’s their fault’ and point to the other chamber. The other leader. I’m like: you are elected, you have a vote,” Durbin said . “So for us to boil it down to two individuals is a bit of a cop out. Right now, the General Assembly and the governor — none of them are choosing to do what’s in the best interest of the state.”

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June 10, 2017 at 05:40AM

How Illinois became America’s failed state – Politico

How Illinois became America’s failed state – Politico

http://ift.tt/2rcHfjj

Illinois has compiled $14.6 billion in unpaid bills. It’s running a deficit of $6 billion and its pension liability has soared to $130 billion.

That’s not the worst of it. The state’s nearly two-year failure to pass a budget has sent its bond ratings careening toward junk level, downgraded a staggering eight notches below most other states.

Story Continued Below

With university enrollments plummeting, large-scale social service agencies shuttering and the Chicago Public Schools forced to borrow just to stay open through the end of this school year, Illinois is beginning to devolve into something like a banana republic — and it’s about to have the most expensive election the state has ever seen.

Democrats have flooded the primary to challenge GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, with billionaire J.B. Pritzker among them. Pritzker has already poured $14 million into his campaign for a general election that’s still 15 months away.

“Illinois is operating in a way 49 other states would never try to operate,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-partisan fiscal watchdog group. “There is permanent damage that is being done that will take decades to repair.”

The devastation of the state’s finances has taken its toll on Rauner politically, despite his investing heavily on TV, digital and robocall messaging — in 2016 alone, Rauner contributed more than $50 million to his upcoming campaign. In March, 58 percent of those polled reported having an unfavorable view of the Republican, according to a poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, up from 32 percent in 2015.

One of just five blue-state Republican governors, Rauner is widely viewed as the most vulnerable incumbent in the nation.

To troll Rauner about the budget, Pritzker’s campaign created “Tick Tock the Budget Clock” a character dressed as a clock, who follows Rauner at his public events carrying a sign that displays the number of days the state has gone without a budget.

As of Friday, it stood at 709 days, an unprecedented amount of time for a state to go without an operating budget.

“Illinois is a real outlier in the most striking way. The sheer size of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities … just looking at the state’s finances, its habit of deferring payments from one year to the next, has created a vicious circle,” said Ted Hampton, vice president with Moody’s Investment Services. “Illinois has had a very large negative balance both in absolute terms and relative to its budget for many years.”

What does the crisis all boil down to? It began with an ego-laden brawl between two powerful men: Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan. Rauner was elected in 2014 as the first Republican governor in Illinois in more than a decade, vowing to “shake up Springfield” in a campaign that demonized Madigan — the longest serving House speaker in state history — and targeted “corrupt union bosses.”

Upon taking office, Rauner, a multi-millionaire businessman, laid out a list of policy demands that initially included right to work elements, as a condition of signing a budget into law. Rauner wanted changes to laws affecting workers compensation, collective bargaining and state property taxes, among others. Democrats considered the agenda an attack on unions, which the governor had vilified, saying they had too much power in Illinois politics. Rauner called the measures pro-business, and necessary to address decades of financial mismanagement.

But Madigan, who has served as speaker under governors from both political parties, was loathe to condition the passage of a budget on the governor’s political agenda. Each side dug in, with unions rushing behind Madigan and Republicans, tired of being shut out for years by Madigan and thrilled to have a generous donor to their campaigns in the governor’s office, lined up behind Rauner.

Today, Madigan’s Democratic-majority House and the Republican governor remain entrenched in the war to end all political wars. The exception is the Democratic-controlled Senate, which ultimately voted on a tax increase before May 31 adjournment.

Both Rauner and Madigan counted on the other to cave. Neither has. Meantime, the state is drowning in debt, deficit spending and multiple bond rating downgrades.

It’s increasingly possible that Rauner — a wealthy businessman who promised he carried negotiation credibility and the know-how to fix the state’s finances — could complete his four-year term in office without ever having passed a budget. At that point, economic forecasts indicate the state’s unpaid bill pile would soar beyond $20 billion. The bill backlog was at about $6 billion when Rauner first took office.

To put it into perspective, the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature just overrode a veto by its governor from the same party that reversed the governor’s tax cuts and created $1.9 billion in revenue. Lawmakers there panicked after the state found itself $900 million in the hole — a drop in the bucket compared to Illinois.

Few Illinois state pols seem to be panicking. That could be a reflection of voters who don’t seem rattled.

Instead of voting on full-fledged budgets, including possibly increasing revenue, the governor and the General Assembly has signed off on stopgap spending plans. That means they’re cherry picking certain areas to fund — keeping schools open and roads paved.

“This impasse has been sort of cleverly positioned to diminish the immediate, obvious impacts on your middle class voters,” said Andrea Durbin, Chief Executive Officer on Illinois Collaboration on Youth said. “Those voters are being deceived because every single one of us is going to pay more every single day that this goes on. Having the DMV open, state parks, highway construction and K-12 open, it allows your sort of average middle class voter to be deceived about what is going on.”

Illinois has long been creative in how it pays its bills, long before Rauner took office. It has for years taken the politically palatable option of avoiding tax hikes while borrowing from pension funds, allowing its pension backlog to balloon and failing to sock away money for emergencies. Illinois is just one of nine states to not have a rainy day fund, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Last month, a group of protesters was so fed up with the stalemate that it took drastic measures to draw attention to the crisis. They walked 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield, stopping in towns along the way to talk about the budget. Once inside the capital, some demonstrators were dragged from the House chamber. In the evening, another group tied their wrists together, chanted traditional protest chants and sat in a circle outside the governor’s office before about three dozen were arrested.

The next day, the Illinois House adjourned without even calling a budget bill for a vote. A week later, the governor was touring the state — to talk about a property tax crisis. As for Madigan, he authorized public hearings which are underway now, to continue discussions — on a budget.

“No one has tried to do what Illinois is doing. Every other state has relied on the pressure that comes to bear on the governor and state legislators,” said the Civic Federation’s Msall.

With no solution in sight for the almost two-year budget standoff, both Rauner and Madigan have sought to flood political campaign accounts with record amounts of cash aimed at broadening their grasp over the Democratic-controlled Legislature. But pinning the blame on Rauner and Madigan is to simplify the crisis, observers say.

“Every single member of the General Assembly has a vote. We’ve been asking for a long time, who do we blame? When we started, we went and visited over 40 legislators in both parties and said, please don’t do this. Exclusively, they’d say: ‘it’s their fault’ and point to the other chamber. The other leader. I’m like: you are elected, you have a vote,” Durbin said . “So for us to boil it down to two individuals is a bit of a cop out. Right now, the General Assembly and the governor — none of them are choosing to do what’s in the best interest of the state.”

Missing out on the latest scoops? Sign up for POLITICO Playbook and get the latest news, every morning — in your inbox.

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June 10, 2017 at 05:40AM

How Illinois became America’s failed state – Politico