Despite a $2 billion-plus budget gap and a governor who has pledged not to raise income or sales taxes to increase revenues, advocates say children and families fared pretty well in the 2005 Illinois legislative session, which ended May 31. OK, not as well as they could have, given the defeat of a bill that would have increased from eight to 24 hours the amount of time parents can take off work for school functions.
But let’s look to the good. Among the highlights of the session are bills and budget initiatives that: n Add $30 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant, which provides preschool programs to poor children in Illinois. This is the third and final installment in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s promise to commit $90 million to early childhood education over three years. “We still have a ways to go to make it ‘preschool for all’ access,” says Sean Noble, director of government relations for the Chicago-based advocacy coalition Voices For Illinois Children. “But this is a substantial step. It represents another 8,000 children having access.” n Provide an additional $300 million for Illinois elementary and high schools. This is probably the most roundly criticized piece of the state budget. Education advocates had hoped for a change in the way schools are funded to shift some of the burden for school funding from local property taxpayers to the state budget. The increase passed by the legislature raises by $200 the minimum per-pupil spending for public schools to $5,164, which still is $1,240 less than a state board says is needed. Advocates at A-Plus Illinois, a school funding reform coalition, also point out that most of the money comes from foregoing payments to pension funds for teachers and state workers. • Expand access to health insurance for working families. The additional $5.75 million in state funding will be matched with $11.5 million in federal money to provide health insurance to 50,000 more low-income working families.
• Toughen penalties levied against sex offenders. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan pushed this bill, which requires those convicted of the most serious offenses, including sexual assault of a child, to be supervised for life. The law applies to crimes committed on or after July 1. Other laws toughen sex offender registration requirements and regulations on where offenders can live and what they need to do when they move. Cindy Richards