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Cullerton: Rauner pension deal likely, but school funding needs 'turnaround'

State Senate President John Cullerton said Monday that despite a confusing public disagreement with Gov. Bruce Rauner last week over pension reform, he still believes he and the Republican governor are nearing a deal.

But the Senate’s top Democrat also took a dig at Rauner and his coveted pro-business, anti-union “Turnaround Agenda,” saying state education funding is what needs to be turned around in a way that will likely send hundreds of millions to Chicago schools.

“The governor has linked things together,” Cullerton said during a question-and-answer session at a City Club luncheon. “We don’t have a budget because of his Turnaround Agenda, so I can link things, too. … We’ve got to change the school funding formula.”

Cullerton outlined his plans in a speech titled “Funding Our Schools: Time for a Turnaround.”

The Senate president has emerged as a conciliatory presence in the months-long impasse over the budget, which has left the state without a spending plan seven months into the budget year. A feud between Rauner and Democratic state House Speaker Michael Madigan has grown increasingly caustic.

Rauner last week held a triumphant press conference — without Cullerton — to announce that he and the North Side Democrat had reached a pension deal.

But two hours later, Cullerton issued a statement that the governor had overstated the scope of their deal. Rauner aides walked back the governor’s statement hours later, and Cullerton on Monday said the flap was simply a misunderstanding.

Rauner “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,” Cullerton told reporters after making what he called his own state of the state remarks to the City Club.

“I think when he explained the bill he kind of went past what I thought was in the bill. It was a misunderstanding.”

RELATED: Brown: Cullerton links Chicago school funding fix to other needy districts

Rauner aides did not return messages from the Sun-Times seeking comment on Cullerton’s speech.

The pension plan, Cullerton said, is the same one Cullerton introduced unsuccessfully last year: state workers can receive slightly lower annual cost-of-living raises if they elect to have those pay increases count toward their retirement benefits, or they can get larger wage increases that won’t increase the size of their future pension payouts. Rauner had said last week — incorrectly, Cullerton insisted — that the legislation also would prevent state employees from making raises part of collective bargaining.

“Now we’ll just calm down, we’ll sit down, draft a bill and then we’ll get an agreement,” Cullerton said.

But Cullerton noted that passing the pension deal might remain on the sidelines as the budget impasse enters its seventh month because Rauner has insisted that non-budget issues such as term limits, right-to-work zones and worker’s compensation reform be tied to passing any spending plan. Without a budget on the books, state agencies have limped along on a series of short-term appropriations or court-ordered payouts.

It was not clear Monday whether adding the controversial topic of school funding to the mix would speed along a vote on a budget. Cullerton has called for a funding system that would send more money to the state’s poorest districts, where he said more funding is necessary for special education and other needs — a change that also would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the Chicago Public Schools at a time when the district faces a deficit that could reach nearly $800 million next year.

Cullerton said he would find a sponsor to introduce school funding legislation this year, and noted that while changing the funding formula would mean some districts — affluent ones — would lose out on some state funding, districts from Springfield to Cairo would stand to gain extra cash. Illinois ranks last among the 50 states in “funding equity” for public schools, leaving districts in poor areas with less money for special education and other programs that impoverished students are more likely to need, Cullerton said.

Cullerton, a Lincoln Park Democrat, noted that the current funding formula sends relatively less money to Chicago schools for student funding and pension funds, echoing recent statements by CPS chief Forrest Claypool.

Still, similar school funding legislation has failed to gain traction in the past two years when faced with opposition from suburban districts that faced the loss of millions in state funding. Monday afternoon, the top Republican in Cullerton’s chamber, Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), issued a statement that slammed the suggestion of changing the funding formula as a “special deal” to benefit Chicago.

“Senate President Cullerton’s remarks today will strike fear in the hearts of families and schools across the state. He’s threatening the opening of schools next fall,” Radogno said.

“The Democrat majority controlled state government for more than ten years and ignored school funding reform – other than to create special deals for Chicago Public Schools. The most recent proposal again advantaged Chicago — at the expense of suburban school districts.

“We are willing to tackle school funding reform – but it’s not the only place in Illinois ripe for reform.”