The Politics of Mike Bost’s Pension Rant: Upstate, Downstate

A downstate representative from Murphysboro gets mad, and his rant on teacher-pension funding goes viral, thanks to some paper-throwing and barnyard epithets. What’s bothering him: Michael Madigan, or something more?

Far-downstate Illinois representative Mike Bost, a Murphysboro native, got a heaping helping of attention for his obscenity-spiced rant about pensions Madiganistan on the floor of the Illinois House; I knew it’d gone viral when Rachel Maddow was tweeting about a downstate Illinois politician.

But out of context, it’s a bit confusing. What’s his beef?

“We’re not talking a simple name change of agency,” Bost said about the rewritten plan that he claimed ignored Republican attempts to relieve school districts from assuming pension costs. The GOP says that would result in local property tax increases.

Basically, the state picks up most of the tab for teacher pensions outside of Chicago—so if you live in Chicago, you pay for both CPS pensions and statewide teacher pensions. At first glance, this might seem unfair; the counter-argument is that CPS gets more than its fair share of funding from the state. Eric Zorn has a good explainer for this; the funding mechanisms are complex.

The conservative Illinois Policy Institute thinks it’s unfair—"GSA [general state aid] dollars favor poorer districts, TRS [teachers retirement system] contributions favor the state’s wealthier districts"—putting it at odds with the downstate-heavy Illinois GOP. (The State Journal-Register is also in favor of moving the pension costs from the state, which would save the state itself money, at least directly.)

But it’s worth considering Bost’s point, or assigning a point to his oration. Illinois schools are heavily property-tax dependent; areas with high property values are able to fund their schools on a per-pupil basis at rates much higher than those without, and it’s been that way for years. You will likely be unsurprised about the geography of high- and low- per-pupil funding:

“The history of school finance in Illinois is that everybody fends for themselves,” said Robert Leininger, a former state school superintendent who chaired a 2002 reform panel whose recommendations went nowhere.

The public’s me-first focus on schools is perhaps a central reason Illinois lags among states in its spending on schools. It is also why Illinois relies more on local property tax revenues to fund education than just about any other state.

As a result, per-pupil spending tends to follow the old real estate maxim of “location, location, location.” It is generally higher in the Chicago area and lower downstate.

There are a lot of reasons for Chicagoland-downstate conflict, but this has historically been a big one.

Take Bost: he went to Murphysboro High School. Its district currently has an EAV per pupil of $87,506 and a tax rate for education of 4.5 per $100. The non-CPS high school in Madigan’s district, Reavis, has an EAV per pupil of $729,524 and a tax rate of 1.7 per $100. Some of the schools in Bost’s district fare better, like Nashville High School, but generally speaking the schools in the district Madigan represents have higher EAVs per pupil and lower tax rates, as you’d expect from the geography of school funding in Illinois.

In this context—north-south disparities exacerbated by a property-tax reliant state school funding system—the Chicagoland-heavy Democratic House majority moves to push pension funding onto localities, who fear that property taxes would go up more. It’s completely unsurprising that the big freakout would come from a downstate representative.

Was that all Bost was angry about? No, not entirely. The Illinois Issues blog explains the sausage-making legislative shenanigans that pushed Bost over the edge, though Rich Miller counters that Bost supported the rule changes involved when they were made in 1995. Maybe he was just generally blowing off steam about The Madigan Rules.

It’s academic now, or at least for the time being—the Tribune reports that the governor told Madigan to cool his heels on the pension shift so that reforms could otherwise get done, and he grumblingly assented. But if it returns, it will continue to create strange bedfellows between downstate, collar counties, and Chicagoans.

 

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