Illinois Senate passes grant program for needy college students

By Dave McKinney

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The Illinois Senate on Thursday earmarked $227.2 million for low-income college students whose need-based financial aid has been imperiled by the state’s 11-month budget impasse.

But Republican Governor Bruce Rauner offered no sign of supporting the measure for Monetary Award Program recipients after members of his party pilloried the funding package as a “farce” because it did not identify a specific revenue stream to pay for it.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelley declined to say whether the governor intends to sign or veto the legislation, saying only “Governor Rauner remains committed to reaching a balanced budget alongside meaningful reforms in a bipartisan manner.”

Illinois’ public universities and community colleges and the MAP program have only received a fraction of what they had expected from the state since July because Rauner and the Democratic-led legislature have yet to agree on a Fiscal 2016 spending plan.

A stopgap $600 million higher-education funding package enacted by Rauner last month offered some relief, but an early-May effort to appropriate an additional $454 million on top of the April total stalled in the Illinois House of Representatives after passing the Senate.

In fiscal 2015, the last year in which Illinois had a full operating budget, the state appropriated $357.1 million to the MAP program. That amount provided for income-based grants of up to $4,968 to 128,399 students, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission reported.

State Senator Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and the legislation’s chief sponsor, said the package would “ensure that our students can relieve themselves of some of the drama they’ve been going through this year because of the inaction by this body and the governor” in passing a budget.

But Republicans ripped the plan, with Senator Chapin Rose, a Republican from Mahomet, Ill., about 200 miles south of Chicago, accusing the Senate majority of “writing a check that it darn well knows cannot be cashed.”

The Senate passed the bill 39-15, with two members voting present – enough to override any potential Rauner veto. But the 68-45 margin during a Tuesday House vote fell three votes short of a veto-proof majority, meaning Rauner could kill the measure if he chose to.

(Reporting by Dave McKinney; Editing by James Dalgleish)