Blago's education aide tells D97 not now, not this on tax swap

Aide gives tips, recommends compromise

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By DREW CARTER

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's chief educational aide and state Sen. Don Harmon met with District 97 board members, administrators and members of the district's Legislative Advocacy Committee recently to discuss increasing and reforming school funding.

Elliot Regenstein, the state's director of education reform, gave the group some recommendations for helping pass so-called tax swap legislation, or other drastic funding reform.

Tax swap measures look to raise state income taxes, rebate local property taxes, and raise more money for state programs, including funding education.

The committee sent a delegation to Springfield in May to talk with Regenstein. The group lobbied for support of a "tax swap" measure before the General Assembly, and met with area legislators. But Regenstein was called into a meeting with the governor moments before he was scheduled to meet with the D97 group.

At the June meeting, the group told Regenstein of the fiscal problems the district has had, realizing its problems pale in comparison to those of other districts. They asked whether the governor understood the "structural deficit" built into the current state funding scheme, and whether the governor would consider supporting less drastic measures that would help schools, such as a refund recovery levy, which would allow districts to reclaim money lost to tax appeals.

Blagojevich has pledged not to approve measures that would raise taxes.

Regenstein said the administration agrees in principal with many of those who supported education funding reform through a tax swap, but disagrees with how to fund education. He said the governor's pledge to not raise taxes was based on first getting the state's financial "house in order."

"So, the issue is just where you are getting the money," Regenstein said.

He said the best chance to pass a drastic measure, such as a tax swap bill, would be in 2007, and recommended a few steps for the committee to take in the meantime.

Regenstein said legislators needed some positive feedback for approving budgets that have increased education spending the past three years.

"Politician's like to get credit," he said, adding it was "tough sledding" to get the education funding increases approved the past three years, and that without acknowledgement legislators might be less inclined to think raising education funding would win them any support.

Funding reformers should "not let perfection be the enemy of possibility," Regenstein said. Compromise could make for a better plan, and advocates should look to other groups for support. He used the business community as an example, where statewide business groups opposed the tax swap measure in May, while Cook County businesses would have seen $439 million in tax relief.

"I don't understand that," Regenstein said. "The business community is the real winner here."

He suggest that perhaps a tax swap measure would be easier to approve if it were rolled out over a period of years.

Regenstein also said more information on a proposal needs to reach legislators. Some legislators may have decided against a bill, despite the fact that it would have improved school funding within their districts more than it would have raised taxes. Those lawmakers might be won over with that information, he said.

Sen. Harmon agreed, saying he was generally in support of the tax swap measure in the spring, but needed more information on how it would affect his district before he could fully support the bill.

Dist. 97 Board President Carolyn Newberry Schwartz said she would like to see "more leadership" from the Blagojevich administration, but that the Legislative Advocacy Committee, of which she's a member, will consider Regenstein's suggestions.

"I think we'll take it back to the [full] committee and see if any one of those things makes sense to us," she said, adding that the group will have to determine how to best use its resources in pressing for better funding.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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