Clock ticking for Rauner to sign $215M CPS teacher pension bill

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner | Sun-Times library

The clock is ticking for Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign or veto a teacher pension bill with the potential to blow a $215 million hole in the Chicago Public Schools budget and trigger devastating classroom cuts.

On Nov. 7, the teacher pension bill was quietly moved to the governor’s desk, giving the governor 60 days to make a decision on it.

That means Rauner has until Jan. 4 to either sign the bill, veto it or do nothing, in which case the legislation would take effect automatically.

If Rauner vetoes the bill, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Democratic legislative leaders would have three days to try for an override before the new General Assembly is sworn in and old legislation dies.

A veto is likely unless there is an end to the marathon budget stalemate between Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders over the governor’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms.

When the governor signed off on the deal giving Chicago $215 million for teacher pensions, it was with the unwritten understanding that CPS would get the money — but only if there was an elusive deal to save state pensions. And that’s unlikely to happen until Illinois has a permanent budget.

The political script is virtually identical to what happened last spring with legislation giving Chicago 15 more years to ramp up to a 90 percent funding level for police and fire pensions.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) held onto the bill for months amid concern that Rauner would veto the legislation to squeeze cash-strapped Chicago and strengthen his own hand in the budget stalemate.

The delay forced Emanuel to use $220 million in short-term “bridge” financing — with a $1.38 million price tag for beleaguered Chicago taxpayers — to make a state-mandated payment to police and fire pension funds that was higher than his tax-laden 2016 budget anticipated because the police and fire pension reform bill had not been signed into law.

On March 31, Cullerton quietly sent the legislation to the governor’s desk, starting the 60-day clock.

When Rauner vetoed the bill, there was still time to override before the spring session ended.

Three Republican crossover votes in the Illinois House subsequently helped Emanuel override the governor’s veto of the police and fire pension reforms, staving off yet another massive property tax increase.

It was a stunning victory that Emanuel had burned the phone lines to achieve. Just days before, top mayoral aides had described the chances of an override in the House at 50-50 at best.

Emanuel can only hope the override ending is the same for the teacher pension bill.

If he’s wrong, CPS is likely to have no choice but to make deep classroom cuts. Another borrowing to plug the $215 million gap would appear to be out of the question. Just this week, Emanuel’s hand-picked school team put off a $426 million borrowing until the new year.

Last week, the CPS bond rating dropped even deeper into junk status, in part because Emanuel used one-time revenue to stave off another teacher strike: an $87.5 million tax-increment-financing surplus that the mayor’s own City Council floor leader acknowledged is “not sustainable.”

Schools CEO Forrest Claypool could not be reached for comment on his contingency plan in the event Rauner vetoes the bill and Democrats can’t muster enough votes for an override.

Before leading a huge delegation of movers and shakers on a trip to Rome to attend the elevation of Archbishop Blase Cupich to cardinal, Emanuel put in a last-minute pitch for the state budget deal that would give business leaders the “certainty” they crave to invest in Chicago and Illinois.

“The world is, in many ways, an uncertain place. And companies go to and expand where there is certainty about the future — where they think they can have the best potential to grow. They invest in certainty,” the mayor said.

“Springfield’s uncertainty is what undermines the state of Illinois, which I find Chicago located in, sometimes much to my chagrin. Springfield getting a budget — Springfield getting its financial overall house in order — would create certainty that would help us economically [to] grow. The uncertainty in Springfield is the biggest drag on the economic well- being of, not only the state but potentially Chicago.”

The delegation to Rome includes Rauner and his wife, Diana and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and their wives.

So, there’s at least a chance for political bonding that could lead to deal-making. Or at the very least, a few prayers for an end to the political stalemate in Illinois.

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