SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn detailed an ambitious early childhood education plan during his State of the State address this week, but left out of the annual speech was any mention of how to pay for it in a state beset by financial troubles.
While Quinn's "Birth to Five" initiative may serve as a cornerstone of his re-election campaign, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say implementing a costly new program could be a tough sell after deep state budget cuts and as they head into a legislative session expected to be dominated by a tax and spend debate.
"We're going to have a really, really tough year," said state Rep. Frank Mautino, House Speaker Michael Madigan's point person on the budget. "What I'm looking at now, what our staffs are looking at, is potentially the reduction of $1.5 billion with the tax increase going away."
The State Board of Education says it has already has seen more than $800 million in cuts to school funding since 2009. Among the school services and programs that receive state money, early childhood education has taken a hard hit, receiving $80 million less this year than the $380 million lawmakers approved in 2009.
"It's gotten ravaged, it's all gotten ravaged," said Robin Steans, executive director of education think tank Advance Illinois. "And that's happening in the face of the fact that every year that goes by there's stronger and stronger evidence of how important education during the first five years is."
This year, the Board of Education is asking for an extra $25 million pegged for early childhood education programs to offset recent cuts.
Yet Quinn, touting the benefits of early childhood education, said Wednesday that he wants to increase access to prenatal care, early learning and parental support.
The idea was praised by early education advocates, including the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which is run by Diana Rauner, wife of Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, one of four Republicans vying to challenge Quinn in the fall.
Quinn spent Thursday promoting his education initiative at early learning centers in Rockford and Chicago, but the Chicago Democrat declined to talk about costs or how the state would pay for it. Lawmakers tasked with appropriating education dollars said no estimates were available as of Friday.
"We'll talk about the budget when the budget time comes," Quinn told reporters in Chicago.
Quinn's February budget address will serve as the official opening salvo of budget negotiations for the year.
Extending an increase in the state income tax, which is set to drop back from 5 percent to 3.75 percent next January, is expected to be a divisive issue ahead of fall's elections.
Mautino said lawmakers will be planning for several different outcomes.
"Our staffs at both sides are looking at different scenarios, which would look at it all across the board: Extending it, possibly extending it and letting it go away."
Republicans who want the income tax increase rolled back already are portraying themselves as better stewards of public funds than Democrats, who originally billed the increase as temporary. Democrats, in turn, paint a doomsday scenario of cuts if the increase expires as planned, with some, including state Sen. Don Harmon, pushing for a shift to a graduated income tax— essentially making the wealthy pay more.
If the tax increase rolls back as scheduled, Mautino, of Spring Valley, said the state would have roughly $1.5 billion less to spend in 2015.
Mautino said if lawmakers want to set up a new initiative such as "Birth to Five," they have two options: reduce spending in other areas, or use federal grant money to offset cuts.
Some lawmakers argue that the state, which faces roughly a $6 billion backlog of bills this year, must deal with existing obligations before taking on new ones.
State Sen. Pam Althoff, a McHenry Republican and former special education teacher, called expanding early childhood education an "a laudable discussion to have at a state level."
Yet, she said, "We've been struggling with 'How do you pay for it?' for the last several years. Let's get our arms around what we owe and our deficit first."
Quinn's budget address in February is expected to provide some answers about the viability of his plans for early childhood education.
"I would love to see them decide to tackle this in the spring before they pass the budget," she Steans said. "Let our institutions plan accordingly. That would be a politically responsible and courageous thing to do." --- Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago. --- Follow Kerry Lester at http://twitter.com/kerrylester.