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Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon: State needs long-term investment in students 

Chicago Sun-Times
May 27, 2012
By Sheila Simon

Our state budget is a headache. And a heartache. But we need to address these aches — and a temporary Band-Aid won’t be enough.

Backlogged Medicaid bills and ballooning pension obligations are putting a squeeze on our state budget.

Without major changes, health care for our neediest residents and retirement benefits for faithful public employees will eat 50 percent of the state’s spending plan in 2014. Each dollar added to that total takes away a dollar from human services, law enforcement or other expenses.

As Gov. Pat Quinn’s point person on education reform, I see most clearly the squeeze on school funding. Illinois education funding is leaner than most states. But given the known Medicaid and pension costs, our State Board of Education is bracing for a half-billion reduction in state dollars.

And the squeeze is not just felt by local grade schools and high schools. It hits home for students trying to cobble together money for college, whether they plan to study microbiology or welding.

Here’s one example:

In the past decade, the buying power of the state’s Monetary Award Program, a grant to the neediest college students, has fallen dramatically.

MAP grants used to cover full tuition and fees at public community colleges and universities; now students are lucky if it covers half.

And for every student who received partial assistance from MAP this year, another qualified applicant was denied. We just didn’t have enough grant dollars to go around.

We need those college credentials now more than ever before. In Illinois, nearly 140,000 jobs are going unfilled because workers lack the necessary skills. We need to invest in students and schools if we expect to bridge that skills gap and reach our state’s big goal: 60 percent of our working-age adults holding a degree or certificate by 2025.

An educated and agile work force is key to building and attracting quality jobs.

Without that investment in education, our economic recovery could falter.

The governor and the General Assembly are working to strengthen and stabilize our Medicaid and pension systems. The Legislature passed $1.6 billion in Medicaid reductions earlier this week.

More pain is ahead.

We need a dollar cigarette tax to fund health-care coverage that no one has the heart to cut. As for pensions, there’s no room for perks in the long term.

These reforms may disappoint some friends and constituents. It would be easier politically to make short-term, feel-good decisions. But that is what got us into the squeeze we are in today.

Now is the time to think long-term — to make sure our pension system is sustainable, to move toward paying bills to health-care providers and schools on time, to make sure students can invest in their own education, and to show entrepreneurs that this state is a solid place to plant and grow their businesses.

The long-term view involves painful choices, but being brave enough to take that medicine is what will get us back to a healthy state.

Sheila Simon is lieutenant governor of Illinois.