By Rich Miller
“The governor has linked things together,” Senate President John Cullerton said during a speech to the City Club of Chicago back in January. “We don’t have a budget because he’s got his ‘turnaround agenda.’ So I can link things together, too.”
Cullerton was referring to his threat to not pass any funding for K-12 schools until school funding reform is addressed. Despite being repeatedly blasted by the governor and the Senate Republican leader for planning to take schools “hostage” in order to “bail out” Chicago’s school system with his funding reform plan, Cullerton has not publicly backed down from his statement.
And I happen to believe that his direct and deliberate threat, perhaps more than anything else, has pushed Statehouse types to try and reach a conclusion to this long, crazy impasse.
Gov. Bruce Rauner surprised many Democrats last year when he vetoed the entire budget except the K-12 appropriations bill. He made sure that schools would open on time last fall, taking the potential for an extreme crisis off the table. Rauner doesn’t seem all that outwardly concerned about the carnage caused by the months-long government impasse, but he made absolutely sure to keep a K-12 shutdown from happening.
Illinoisans are quite upset about this stalemate. Many are even downright furious. But imagine the outcry if schools hadn’t opened last year. The first-year governor would’ve been roasted over a spit, and he knew it.
Rauner told reporters not long before Cullerton made his threat that last year’s school funding bill was the greatest achievement of his first year in office—even though he told Republican legislators to vote against the K-12 appropriations bill (probably to throw the Democrats off the scent). He has said over and over since Cullerton’s City Club address that passing his school funding bill was his top priority, and he even demanded during his budget address that it be done right away.
Usually in battles like these, you try to prevent your opponent from achieving his main goal. And since the governor has let everyone know what his main goal is, it naturally became a target.
Cullerton faithfully reads newspaper editorials and other commentary and oftentimes lets the criticism get under his skin. So there’s naturally a whole bunch of suspicion out there that he won’t follow through or will eventually relent under extreme duress.
But the chance that Cullerton might not cave is most certainly helping to push this thing toward a conclusion. Rauner has essentially admitted multiple times with deeds and words that not passing the K-12 appropriations bill would lead to an utter catastrophe. And keep in mind that he has moved off the dime just about every time he’s been faced with a calamity that Republican legislators wanted to avoid.
So, while it may be downright wrong to threaten school kids, teachers and parents this way (and it is wrong, to the point of immorality), somebody had to do something to advance the ball.
The General Assembly almost always waits until things hit a crisis point before it resolves a controversial issue. Pension reforms, numerous tax hikes, medical malpractice reform, etc., etc., etc., all had to wait until the need for them was so great that legislators had no choice but to act.
Obviously, there would be no greater crisis than the absence of K-12 funding, and there has never been any greater controversy in this state than this standoff.
Frankly speaking, if threatening to close down the state’s entire public education system doesn’t work, then nothing will. They’ll be arguing over a burned-out hollow shell of a state.
Cullerton has taken a carrot-and-stick approach. The stick is his K-12 threat. The carrot is the encouragement and assistance he’s offered rank-and-file legislators who have been attempting to privately find an end to this insanity. While other caucuses and the governor’s office now have staff helping out and are even talking with each other, Cullerton has been generous with his staff for quite a while now, deploying them to help work out issues.
Speaker Madigan, meanwhile, was not at all encouraging of the rank-and-file talks. But allowing his staff to work with those members and to also talk with the other staffs is a hopeful sign to many.
Another encouraging sign is that Rauner’s chief of staff has participated in some of the rank-and-file meetings, as has Rauner’s chief legislative liaison and his budget director. That’s important because, obviously, nothing is going to get done without the governor’s agreement.