Cullerton will seek re-election, urges gov to start budget talks

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Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, speaks during a news conference last month. File Photo. (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD — Despite a term full of ups and downs, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton on Tuesday confirmed he’ll seek re-election in 2019 — with a gentle jab to the governor in volunteering that he wants “to serve under a Democratic governor again.”

“I was always planning on being here for a little while,” Cullerton, D-Chicago, told reporters after speaking at a women’s rally and march. “There’s a lot of work to do between now and then. I want to serve under a Democratic governor again.”

Cullerton and Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, have been credited for their leadership efforts in piecing together a “grand bargain” package in the Illinois Senate as a way to try to solve the state’s budget impasse without the backdrop of a political feud between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But on March 1, GOP lawmakers, sans Radogno, vowed they wouldn’t support the package. Cullerton and Democrats pointed the finger at the governor.

State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, on Tuesday vouched his support for Cullerton as Senate president, saying he’s “consistently demonstrated that he’s been the right leader for our caucus in challenging times” since taking over the presidency “on the eve of an impeachment trial” and through “an epic budget standoff.”

“The Senate Democratic caucus has never been an easy caucus. The stories that I heard from my mentor [former Illinois Senate Democratic President] Phil Rock about navigating the Senate Democratic caucus is he’d say, ‘Every morning I wake up and look in the mirror and I have to decide whether I’m going to shave my face or slit my throat,’ Harmon said. “It’s a very talented caucus but it’s a very independent and free thinking caucus. It requires a certain personality and approach and John really has a firm hand but one that is gentle with the individual members of the caucus.”

Harmon said the “grand bargain” process has been discouraging for Cullerton but said he’s still ready to keep fighting to try to fix problems that have multiplied during the budget impasse.

While the “grand bargain” remains stalled, Illinois House Democrats last month passed a “lifeline” measure that would send more than $815 million to social service agencies and universities — despite assurances from Rauner that he won’t support a “stopgap” measure that he says will create more state debt and higher taxes down the road.

Cullerton on Tuesday said he planned to call the “lifeline” measure for a vote in the Illinois Senate.

“If we don’t pass some authorization to spend those [funds from two state accounts set aside for social service agencies and higher education] the money can’t be used, which is kind of ridiculous when we have so many people who are owed so much money,” Cullerton said. “That’s why we need to authorize the spending of those funds.”

The measure has arrived in the Senate, where there are anticipated changes, which will have to be approved in a committee. But it could be called as soon as this week.

Asked whether the bill to fund social services and public universities removes the pressure to get a full budget, Cullerton said the numbers speak for themselves.

“It doesn’t. We still have the pressure of owing $13 billion and spending $8 billion more than we have coming in,” Cullerton said. “That’s enough pressure.”

The Senate president also urged Rauner to re-start talks about a budget compromise: “Come back and tell us what it is we’re short on and maybe we can negotiate.”

Illinois Republican Leader Christine Radogno’s spokeswoman declined to comment on whether she’ll seek re-election.

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