Belleville News-Democrat

Obama OKs bill to halt teacher layoffs

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Summoned back from summer break, the House on Tuesday pushed through an emergency $26 billion jobs bill to protect 300,000 teachers, police and others from election-year layoffs. President Barack Obama immediately signed it into law.

Illinois is expected to get $974 million of the emergency money.

Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, estimated that his 12th Congressional District, which includes part of the metro-east, will get $30 million for education and save 418 jobs in education.

Costello, who represents much of Southwestern Illinois, voted in favor of the bill.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, of the 19th District, which covers part of the metro-east and southeastern Illinois, voted against the bill, saying the bill's passage is "putting a Band-Aid on a problem that's going to be a problem next year if the economy doesn't recover.

"It's more spending and more taxing," Shimkus said. "A lot of folks are concerned with spending in Washington and they're concerned about excessive taxation that causes job loss."

The aid for the states is to be paid for mostly by closing a tax loophole used by multinational corporations and by reducing food stamp benefits for the poor.

Commenting on where the money will come from, Shimkus said it doesn't seem like a good idea to take away from the poor in this economy.

"It will keep some teachers employed temporarily and it will help with some health care funding, but it will come at the cost of increased taxation, decreased food stamps and increased environmental impact," Shimkus said.

More details on the distribution of funds, such as the amount that will be allocated to metro-east emergency workers, was not immediately available Tuesday.

A Costello spokesman, David Gillies, said the funds are expected to trickle down quickly.

"I can't tell you exactly when, but it's to keep folks on the job now, not a year from now, so the money will flow quickly," Gillies said.

Gillies also emphasized that the bill is fully paid for and is expected to reduce the national debt by $1.4 billion over 10 years.

East St. Louis Fire Department Chief Jason Blackmon welcomed the news of the emergency bill. The city has laid off 13 firefighters this year, about a quarter of his department.

"It will be greatly appreciated if some of that money will come to the city to bring back those firefighters," Blackmon said.

"The work load has increased, and I have to give major kudos to the firefighters on staff who work extra hard to keep response times down and suppress fires quickly. I can see some of the guys being tired but they have put forth their extra effort to continue to be a great fire department."

The legislation was approved mainly along party lines by a vote of 247-161.

Lawmakers streamed back to Washington for a one-day session as Democrats declared a need to act before children return to classrooms minus teachers laid off because of budgetary crises in states that have been hard-hit by the recession.

Republicans saw it differently, calling the bill a giveaway to teachers' unions and an example of wasteful Washington spending that voters will punish the Democrats for in this fall's elections.

Obama, joined by teachers at a Rose Garden ceremony earlier in the day, said "we can't stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe."

The Senate narrowly passed the measure last Thursday, after the House had begun its August break.

The legislation provides $10 billion to school districts to rehire laid-off teachers or to ensure that more teachers won't be let go before the new school year begins. The Education Department estimates that could save 160,000 jobs.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said his department would streamline the application process to get the money to local school districts quickly. He said three-fourths of the nation's districts have said they would be opening the school year with fewer teachers and "we wanted to avert a crisis for this year."

An additional $16 billion would extend for six months increased Medicaid payments to the states. That would free money for states to meet other budget priorities, including keeping more than 150,000 police officers and other public workers on the payroll.

Some three-fifths of states have already factored in the federal money in drawing up their budgets for the current fiscal year. The National Governors Association, in a letter to congressional leaders, said the states' estimated budget shortfall for the 2010-12 period is $116 billion, and the extended Medicaid payments are "the best way to help states bridge the gap between their worst fiscal year and the beginning of recovery."

Not all governors were on board. Mississippi Republican Haley Barbour said his state would have to rewrite its budget and would have to spend $50 million to $100 million to get its additional $98 million in education grants.

The House on Tuesday also passed a $600 million measure to boost security on the U.S.-Mexican border by hiring more enforcement officers and making greater use of unmanned surveillance drones. That bill still has to go back to the Senate.