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Senate nixes Rauner veto of $215M CPS pension bill — will House?

Gov. Bruce Rauner talks to reporters in July. File Photo.| Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill Thursday that would have given the Chicago Public Schools $215 million it’s counting on to help pay for teacher pensions — blaming Illinois Senate President John Cullerton for the deal falling apart.

And in quick fashion, Mayor Rahm Emanuel denounced the veto as “reckless and irresponsible” while the Illinois Senate voted 36-16 to override it, saying the governor left them no choice.

“It’s a very difficult issue. So therefore, the merits of this bill are not in dispute. The governor chose to use it as leverage for another reform. I agree with him. But since he chose to veto today, we have no choice but to override it today,” Senate President John Cullerton said before the vote.

If the House wants to follow the Senate, it has 15 days to try for an override vote. Members aren’t scheduled to return to Springfield before the new year, so House speaker Michael Madigan would have to call them back sooner.

The bill was contingent on pension reform being passed by the end of the year — and Rauner pointed the finger at Cullerton in his original veto.

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“The election is over. Despite my repeated request for daily negotiations and hope to reach a comprehensive agreement by the end of next week, we are no closer to ending the impasse or enacting pension reform,” Rauner wrote in his veto message. “Still, President Cullerton withdrew his motion to reconsider the bill, ruled that Leader Radogno’s motion was inapplicable and presented the bill to me for approval or veto — forcing me to take action.”

“Then, today, President Cullerton suddenly denied that the leaders had agreed that this bill would depend upon first enacting comprehensive pension reform,” Rauner wrote. “Breaking our agreement undermines our effort to end the budget impasse and enact reforms with bipartisan support.”

An angry Emanuel lashed out at the governor, declaring in a statement from a climate change summit in Mexico City, “this is no way to run a state.”

“This action is both reckless and irresponsible, and make no mistake, it’s our children who will pay the price,” the mayor said. “The governor is lashing out, imperiling the system-wide gains earned by Chicago students and teachers, and proving just the latest example of his willingness to put the burden of his failures on the backs of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, whether it’s schoolchildren, college students, seniors, or those living with disabilities. This is no way to run a state.”

Likewise, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool blasted the governor in an afternoon news conference, saying Rauner reneged on a promise he made during the summer to pay CPS’ normal pension costs.

“After agreeing to be part of the solution, he’s now back to being the problem,” Claypool said.

CPS will wait to see how the legislative process plays out first, since there’s still time before the veto stands, but Claypool did not rule out a fight in the courts if necessary.

“There’s ongoing meetings and discussions about pension reform, so that’s why it’s so strange that the governor acted so impulsively and recklessly when that process continues,” he said.

After a brief leaders meeting on Thursday morning, Cullerton denied that the CPS bill was tied to pension reform. He called it “just semantics.”

Cullerton was caught off guard by the veto, saying in a statement that he is “shocked and disappointed.”

“I don’t understand and am thoroughly disappointed in his short-sighted move,” Cullerton said.

Later, on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, Cullerton said it is “not true” that he is “suddenly not interested in negotiating comprehensive pension reform.”

“After we override this governor veto, I would be more than happy to go right back to the bargaining table and continue discussions on Chicago pension reform, pension reform for the entire state,” Cullerton said on the Senate floor. “The issue is not so much what is in such a reform rather how to pass it.”

Cullerton said he had no choice but to call for an override — noting senators would have had to return for an override before Dec. 16. He noted Rauner had until Jan. 6 to act on the bill.

Cullerton said he has “100 percent agreed” to talk about pension reform with Rauner and the leaders and said the bill is “virtually drafted.”

The Senate President said the veto sets back pension reform negotiations he said he believed were advancing.

“Even worse, he has potentially forced the layoff of thousands of Chicago teachers and district employees,” Cullerton said in his statement, also noting Rauner had another month before he faced a deadline on the bill.

The Chicago Teachers Union also lashed out, saying “Today’s veto should be a wake-up call to Mayor Rahm Emanuel to denounce the governor and use his influence with the financial sector to make good on promises to fund our schools.

“Based on his record of inaction and neglect thus far, it is no surprise that the governor vetoed a bill that would have provided much-needed funding for Chicago’s public schools,” the union said in a statement. “This was his plan all along. His stopgap budget was nothing but political cover in an election year, and he refuses to pass a balanced, long-term budget or seek additional revenue for Illinois because the state legislature will not agree to his plans to destroy collective bargaining and rescind retirement security.”

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

CPS’s budget isn’t balanced without that money, though city school leaders have declined to discuss alternatives in case the deal falls through.

Last year, CPS enacted unprecedented, deep budget cuts in the middle of the school year after failing to win $480 million from state lawmakers its operating budget counted on.

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.

That’s 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.

Cullerton 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 that bill, lawmakers still had 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.

Tina Sfondeles reported from Springfield, Lauren FitzPatrick and Fran Spielman from Chicago