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Governor proposes leasing Illinois lottery to fund education plan

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is proposing a radical solution to state's school funding crisis: the sale or lease of the state lottery. But his political opponents are calling the governor's plan a risky gimmick.

The governor says his proposal will change the way we fund education in Illinois. The sale of the state lottery would raise $10 billion. Most of that money would go directly to the schools.

The governor says that leadership and tough financial times means thinking outside the box and taking chances, even if it also means you'll take a lot of heat from the critics. So Rod Blagojevich wants Illinois to become the first state in the nation to sell its lottery to private investors to raise tons of cash for the schools without having to raise taxes, and it turns out that is enough to keep State Senator James Meeks from carrying out his threat to run for governor against Blagojevich.

"This education plan is historic. It's ambitious. And it fundamentally will change the way we educate our kids in Illinois and fundamentally change the way we fund our schools in Illinois," said Blagojevich.

The governor is betting that selling, leasing or auctioning off the Illinois Lottery will generate $10 billion so the state can pump $6 billion into the public schools over the next four years, spend $1.5 billion on school production, and invest the remaining $2.5 billion for the future.

"We have a real plan and we have a way to finance it," John Filan, state budget director.

The government wants to use the massive influx of cash on merit pay for teachers, a longer school year for low-achieving schools, full-day kindergarten and universal pre-school, mandatory tutoring for students who need it, accountability standards to make sure the money's not wasted and state takeovers of failing school districts.

"This proposal continues to move our state even further ahead as a state where children in fact do matter and where children really do come first," said Maria Whelan, children's advocate.

"He will probably sell the governor's mansion next for a bed and breakfast. It just doesn't make sense. Who is going to buy it?" said former governor Jim Edgar.

The governor's current Republican opponent, State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, said Blagojevich is resorting once again to fiscal gimmickry, this time aimed at buying off state senator and South Side minister James Meeks, who was threatening to run a third party campaign for governor on a platform of education funding.

"In 12 hours, over a kitchen table, to get a guy out of a race, promises are made. And, you know, it's basically again a shell game for the lottery. I don't think it accomplishes what it says it's going to accomplish and it's a big scam," said Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, (R)-nominee for governor.

"Treasurer Topinka gets an A for complaining and finger pointing but has yet to come up with a single new idea to try to make our schools better," said Blagojevich.

"I have a plan. The governor has a great plan and we've moved down the road," said State Sen. James Meeks, (D)-Chicago.

The governor's plan has the support of Senate President Emil Jones and the head of the state's largest teacher union, House Speaker Michael Madigan, is studying it. It will come up in Springfield after the election in November.

Budget director John Filan said they have had several inquiries about buying the lottery from the same companies that bought the Skyway for $3 billion from Mayor Daley.

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