The top Democrat in the Illinois Senate says he and Gov. Bruce Rauner are close to a deal on pension reform, and that he'd be willing to negotiate other items in the governor's so-called Turnaround agenda.
But he says it will come with a new price tag: The governor will have to consider changing the way the state funds education so that poorer school districts get more money.
Does this mean that tensions are finally thawing in Springfield?
The Senate president says he’s ready to make a deal to get a budget. And he says he has in principle reached a deal with the governor on pension reform that would save the state an estimated $1 billion per year.
That bill would force state workers to make a choice: Keep the yearly compounded cost of living adjustment they get in retirement but agree that future raises they get while working will not apply to their pension – or vice versa – accept a lower COLA in retirement in exchange for having all of their raises apply to their final pension formula.
Cullerton made his remarks at the City Club this afternoon – and explained that he and the governor ironed out their differences from last week, when Rauner announced an agreement, only to have Cullerton minutes later say, ‘Not so fast.’
“He called me and said he was going to have a press conference and he was supporting the concept, but we didn’t have the language worked out,” said Cullerton. “As a result, I had to clarify that I wasn’t agreeing to what I thought he was saying. So now, we'll just calm down, sit down, draft a bill and then we’ll get an agreement.”
Cullerton says he talked to the governor this morning about the bill, and that he expected Speaker Madigan to support elements of it because he has in the past. This move is seen by some as a way to drive a wedge between Cullerton and House Speaker Madigan – Madigan’s spokesperson said he wanted to see an agreement in writing before commenting on the bill.
There are also signs today that perhaps the Democrats are willing to talk to the governor about giving him some of the anti-union/pro-business measures he’s pushing for.
The governor has repeatedly said he would not support a budget with any tax increases unless Democrats agreed to structural changes that include weakening unions’ ability to collectively bargain.
Today, Cullerton said he and Democrats would be willing to sit down with the governor on some of these long sought-after items if it meant getting some kind of agreement.
“We’re willing to talk to him and negotiate with him on collective bargaining in general,” he said. “We’ve made collective bargaining changes in the past, just not radical proposals to eliminate the ability for teachers to negotiate their wages, that’s not going to happen. We’ve changed collective bargaining for Chicago to have a longer school day, for example. The general topic is something we can talk about.”
And the Senate president today is also pitching a so-called Democratic Turnaround agenda. He says the coming year’s budget will have to include a change to the school funding formula so that poorer districts like Chicago Public Schools get more money than they currently do. He says it would also include so-called pension parity – where Chicago would join the rest of the state in having state government pick up the tab for teacher pensions. He says it could go a long way toward solving CPS’ current $500 million budget shortfall and future shortfalls.
“The funding formula, if it’s made more equitable, and there’s pension parity, Chicago will get hundreds of millions more per year,” Cullerton said. “Whether it means it avoids more layoffs, that’s up to them. But this is the most important thing we can do when it comes to education funding.”
But a top Republican senator says Chicago gets enough state aid as it is, and worries that Cullerton’s approach could cause gridlock.
“The governor signed the Democrats’ education budget this year which saved a lot of pain for students and parents, and now it looks like Democrats are willing to hold students and parents hostage next year if they don’t get what they want,” said State Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine). “Chicago still gets a disproportionate amount of more money from state government than they have students in the state. Does anyone really think that a state government run by three people from Chicago is actually taking advantage of Chicago?”
Cullerton has passed a bill out of the Senate that would give CPS $500 million in pension relief. Gov. Rauner supported elements of it but it has languished in the House where Speaker Madigan has indicated he will not support it. As a result, CPS began its first round of layoffs on Friday – giving pink slips to 227 central office employees but so far sparing teachers.
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