Cullerton’s ‘grand bargain’ push: ‘If not this plan, then what?’

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Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, left, D-Chicago, center visits with Sen. Terry Link D-Vernon Hills, left, and Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, on the floor of the Illinois Senate last month. File Photo. (Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Trying to amp up support ahead of a high-pressure week, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton on Monday urged legislators to avoid the white noise, think of the “big picture” and come together to support a package of 12 bills aimed at taking a stab at the state’s crushing budget impasse.

“If not this plan, then what? And if not now, then when?” Cullerton told a City Club of Chicago crowd at the University Club of Chicago.

Legislators return to Springfield on Tuesday for three days — with Cullerton and Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno trying to pass 12 bills dubbed the “grand bargain” plan. The duo has been tirelessly working on the plan — which includes a temporary property tax freeze, an income tax hike, pension reform, changes in workers’ compensation — since December.

On Tuesday, they could finally see some votes — as long as their members are on board. Senate Republicans were meeting with Radogno on Monday in Springfield to get an overview of the final bills. Cullerton planned to meet with his members on Tuesday.

Cullerton has always admitted the plan is in flux. A school funding formula bill is still being drafted, after having incorporated suggestions from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s school funding commission. Cullerton said it has the “principles” needed to get support. And a minimum wage hike bill has been eliminated from the plan — due to pressure from national unions to bump the hike to $15 an hour. The sale of the James R. Thompson Center — a plan being pushed by Rauner’s administration and Republican leaders — has also been added to the plan’s revenue bill. An analysis by the state’s Department of Central Management Services found the sale could bring in $220 million — if the building is demolished and rebuilt. It also could bring in $45 million a year in Chicago property taxes, since it will no longer be a state-owned building.

And Cullerton told reporters on Monday that the leaders will likely have a “structured roll call” — which would spare some legislators from taking unpopular votes. It would allow senators in safe districts who are likely to be re-elected to take some of the toughest votes.

With a slide titled “Failure is not an option” on the wall, Cullerton painted a dire picture of how things could get even worse if the state continues without a spending plan until the gubernatorial election next year: $24 billion in unpaid bills; a downgrade to junk bond status; overdue payments to business topping $40 billion; a higher income tax; closed public universities; layoffs at schools and a bump in property taxes.

Cullerton stressed that legislators will be making tough votes. He said since the “grand bargain” legislation was introduced on Jan. 9, 867 lobbyists had registered with the state.

“Now I don’t fault them entirely. That’s the job of a lobbyist. To protect his or her client’s interest. That’s what they get paid to do. But, lawmakers need to see the big picture, see beyond the special interests and do something to save our state,” Cullerton urged.

The Senate president outlined the harsh realities of the impasse: the elimination of breast cancer screenings, the cutting of counseling for sexual assault victims, discontinued programs at social service agencies, public universities and community colleges watching their students packing for other schools.

But Cullerton argued that the grand bargain plan will help solve the state’s “unprecedented” problems.

“It’s a compromise in the truest form. Something we don’t see enough of in Springfield,” Cullerton said. “If we can pull this off, we’ll pay businesses on time, fully fund MAP scholarships, ensure state workers get paid and government doesn’t shut down, assemble a complete budget for the first time in two years and put Illinois on the path to a balanced budget.

Rauner will deliver his budget address on Feb. 15, and Cullerton urged him to offer a “detailed plan” to raise $6.5 billion in revenue and reforms to produce a balanced budget. But the governor has said he won’t offer cuts in his budget proposal: “Maybe he’ll change his mind once he sees our successful passage of a budget. I think that would kind of raise most peoples’ expectations. He’d have to have some opinion on it so that’s why we’re doing it.”

“The governor should propose a budget that’s balanced, just like this is balanced,” Cullerton said. And he’ll have the benefit of ours to see.”

As for reports he might not run for re-election, Cullerton said he’s not resigning, but said the passage of the “grand bargain” plan may impact his future plans.

“I’ll find out at the end of the year when I decide to run,” Cullerton said. “Part of it will be how successful we are here. If we’re very successful, it makes it even that much easier to make that decision.”

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