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Thursday, June 14, 2012 09:00 pm

The Senate President’s quiet accomplishments

It went almost totally unnoticed at the Statehouse, but Senate President John Cullerton pulled a neat little trick at the end of the spring legislative session and he may end up getting what he wants this fall.

We’re going to get into some “insider” terminology and a few numbers, but it’s really not all that difficult, so stay with me here.

Cullerton refused to advance a measure known as a “budget implementation bill.” The “BIMP” transferred millions of dollars into special state funds. Those transfers are known as “trouts.”

For instance, the legislation transfers $4 million from the state’s General Revenue Fund (which is like the state’s checking account) into the Underground Resources Conservation Fund.

All told, Cullerton wants to fish out about $200 million from the “trouts” and use the cash to satisfy his members’ demand that schools be given more money.

Education took a big hit in the Illinois House’s budget. Overall, the education budget was cut about $200 million. It would have been more, but the House found $50 million from refinancing savings and put that into schools.

Several members of the Senate Democrats’ rank and file initially voted against the House’s education budget. Those “no” votes kept the bill from receiving a majority and set off a scramble which resulted in what appeared to be a face-saving gesture of higher taxes on satellite TV providers and offshore oil company profits. Both of those tax hikes passed the Senate on partisan roll calls, but were never called in the House.

Ever so quietly, though, while news media were watching the tax hike bills, the Senate decided not to pass that BIMP bill. The goal is to pressure the House during the fall veto session to use that cash for education. This is the same basic playbook that the Senate Democrats used last year to increase state spending after the House jammed its budget down their throats. It worked last year and the Senate Dems say it will work again this year as well.

The trout maneuver shows pretty clearly that Cullerton didn’t get the props for the spring session that he deserved. He worked quietly behind the scenes to advance proposals that weren’t high up on the media’s radar.

For instance, Cullerton passed a bill to reform both the General Assembly and state worker pension systems. Passage happened even though the House failed to pass any major pension reforms at all due to partisan bickering. Cullerton, however, put together a structured roll call with the Republicans and moved the bill forward. The move barely received any notice in the spring session’s immediate aftermath.

Cullerton’s pension reform theory also won the day. House Speaker Michael Madigan was of the opinion that the unions could negotiate pension changes for everyone in the system. Cullerton, however, believed that workers and retirees needed to be given a choice between two pension systems to avoid violating the state constitutional mandate that pension benefits “shall not be diminished.” In the end, Cullerton’s theory was adopted. 

And while Cullerton was trying to put together the votes to pass the pension reform bill, Gov. Pat Quinn was busily doing some horse-trading on a bill that had no chance.

The Quinn administration spent much of the last two days of the session vainly searching for votes to pass the so-called “management bill.” The legislation would allow the governor to kick 1,900 state employees out of their union. The administration has fought hard for the proposal for two years straight. They passed it through the House but came up empty in the Senate.

Illinois government’s workforce is more unionized than that of any other state in the country. Somewhere around 95 percent are in the union, including lots of management and political staff. The administration claims it will be 99 percent not far in the future if nothing is done.

Cullerton advanced the management bill out of committee, but a quick head count showed that the bill was nine votes shy of passage, so he moved on to pension reform.

The governor, however, kept trying to find votes for the management bill. Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, confirmed that the Quinn administration agreed not to close a halfway house in his district if he voted for the management bill. In the end, though, the governor could not come up with enough votes and the bill was never called.

Quinn has received high praise for this session, but Cullerton deserves credit as well  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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