Jim Dey: Cullerton optimistic, but sees challenges

Arguing that Illinois is in better shape than some might think, Senate President John Cullerton paid a visit to Champaign-Urbana Wednesday, touting what he calls positive changes and predicting progress will continue.

"I'm more optimistic," he said. "I look at (the glass) as half full," not half empty.

Still, the veteran Chicago Democrat conceded the state faces major challenges, including a budget shortfall that he believes requires the state's temporary 5 percent income tax, or a major portion of it, be made permanent. He urged a K-12 school funding reform bill, which allocates state aid mostly on need, be passed by the House, as it has been by the Senate.

Cullerton also suggested recent public pension reform legislation will not survive legal scrutiny and that legislators will have to take another approach.

"I have always been concerned about it being unconstitutional. Frankly, I think it's unconstitutional," said Cullerton, who reported that he acquiesced to the legislation because he needed "a test case" for the courts.

A challenge to the pension bill, which increases the retirement age for public employees and reduces benefits, is pending before a Springfield judge, who has indicated that he won't issue a decision until early next year. The late date didn't bother Cullerton because he said "we didn't book any (budget) savings for the current fiscal year."

Soon to complete six years as president of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Cullerton often plays second fiddle to his more senior and more powerful House counterpart, Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan. Still, Cullerton fills an important role in shaping public policy, and he visited The News-Gazette to tout the General Assembly's work in the tough political atmosphere of the past six years.

Cullerton said the major recession in 2008 and 2009 played havoc with the state's budget. Chaos in a different form was generated by the slapstick administration of the now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"We had a dysfunctional governor for six years," Cullerton said.

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn took over as governor in 2009 after Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office. Cullerton said he counted the impeachment as one positive bipartisan step because of the precedent-setting nature of the case.

Citing improvements in the state's Freedom of Information Act, the introduction of limits into campaign finance laws and the purging of "Blagojevich appointees" from state boards, Cullerton said legislators have worked to "rebuild" the public's trust in state government.

Among other significant legislation Cullerton cited is an education reform bill that changed rules regarding teacher tenure and layoffs and eliminating the "last hired, first fired" standard, as well as dramatic changes in pension rules for public employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011.

Cullerton also touched on controversial social legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Citing the elimination of the death penalty, the approval of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and the passage of same-sex marriage, Cullerton called them "tough issues" that required "taking on entrenched interest groups."

The Legislature adjourned in May and won't be back in session until after the November election. If Republican candidate Bruce Rauner is successful in his challenge to Quinn, Illinois could have a new governor in late January 2015.

The January 2015 date is crucial because it will take only a majority vote of the lame-duck legislature to pass major legislation, as opposed to the three-fifths votes required in post-election sessions late in 2014.

Cullerton addressed a variety of pending topics that will come up, including:

— Legislation that would separate the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum from the state's Historic Preservation Agency. Promoted by local lawyer Steve Beckett, the legislation created an uproar when Madigan rammed the bill through the House and Cullerton stopped it in the Senate.

Cullerton said Madigan's legislation was incomplete because "it cut (the library) off from the historic preservation agency" but "didn't affiliate it with anything." He suggested linking the Lincoln library to a major university, like the University of Illinois, or possibly establishing it as a "stand-alone" operation.

"I didn't have time to fully vet that bill," he said, calling the idea behind it "something I'm very open to."

— Extending the temporary 5 percent income tax.

"It's pretty clear we need some more money," said Cullerton, citing an estimated $1.3 billion shortfall in the 2015-16 budget that took effect on July 1.

Both Cullerton and Madigan supported making the temporary tax permanent, but skittish legislators running for re-election wouldn't vote for it prior to the fall election. Cullerton said the issue will come back again in January, no matter who is governor.

Quinn supports making the tax permanent while Rauner has indicated he might support phased-in reductions from the 5 percent to avoid the shock of a dramatic reduction in revenues. The 5 percent rate is scheduled to fall back to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1.

— A Cook County judge striking down proposed constitutional amendments to limit legislators to eight years in office and stripping legislators of their authority to gerrymander their own districts.

"I'm obviously not in favor of term limits," Cullerton said.

He disputed the notion that congressional and state districts are not competitive, noting that top quality candidates can draw votes, no matter what type of district in which they run.

— The anti-corruption, anti-status quo campaign being run against entrenched Democrats by Republican Rauner.

"He never uses my name. He only mentions Quinn and Madigan. He must not think I'm corrupt," Cullerton said.

He said he couldn't respond to Rauner's campaign platform because "I haven't seen any specifics."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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