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Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:26 am

Rauner, Cullerton triangulate Madigan

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
Gov. Bruce Rauner blew a perfect opportunity last week to finally drive a public wedge between Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, clearly put Madigan on the defensive, and maybe finally make progress on an important issue which might save the state a billion dollars a year.

But he badly bungled the rollout of a deal with Cullerton on pension reform. Instead of describing the agreement for what it really was, Rauner greatly exaggerated its scope and portrayed it as a big defeat for AFSCME and other unions.

In reality, the deal with Cullerton (and there is still a deal with Cullerton, despite what you may be reading elsewhere) is narrow in scope and elegantly designed to put Madigan in a truly tough position.

The plan, negotiated over months, is to use most of Cullerton’s bill to offer employees a choice. If they want to keep their compounded 3-percent annual cost-of-living increase, then their pay hikes going forward won’t be pensionable. If they want their raises to be pensionable going forward, then those raises would be subjected to the “Tier 2” pension law – annual simple interest pension increases which are either half the Consumer Price Index or 3 percent, whichever is less.

Cullerton has long maintained that if employees are offered a legitimate choice then the state’s constitutional pension contract language would be satisfied. Others note that the constitution also declares that pension benefits cannot be diminished or impaired.

To maybe make this work, however, the law would have to be changed to forbid public employee unions from negotiating on this particular, narrow topic. Pension rights are individual legal rights, so only individuals can make the choice about whether to apply their pay raises to their pensions or not.

And in a brilliant move, the Cullerton and Rauner negotiators deliberately included some important language from Speaker Madigan’s own pension proposal on this very topic: “Employers shall not be required to bargain over matters affected by the changes, the impact of changes and the implementation of changes” made to state pension law.

So, Rauner had Cullerton on board and Madigan in a tight box. Not a bad day’s work.

But when he explained it to reporters, Rauner went way over his skis. To be constitutional, he said, “Salary increases have to be taken out of collective bargaining.”

“This is a key point,” Rauner wrongly continued. “Salary increases come out of collective bargaining. So the union has nothing to do with it in the future.”

That’s just not even close to being true. Under this proposal, the unions can still negotiate salary increases, they just can’t negotiate over what part of those salary increases are pensionable.

And Rauner just couldn’t resist taking another shot. “What we’d like to do in the future is to take other things out of collective bargaining at the state and at the city levels.”

As if things aren’t already on edge during this aggravating, months-long impasse, Rauner let his longtime hatred of unions get in the way of what could’ve been a triumphant day. Everything quickly blew up, with Speaker Madigan shooting down the whole idea and a confused Cullerton (who had prepared a supportive, bipartisan press release in advance) claiming “It’s not my plan.”

The problem here is that trust is almost nonexistent. Nobody at the top trusts anybody else. So, Cullerton immediately assumed that Rauner had double-crossed him.

Later, staff members from the governor’s office explained what the governor actually meant, and Cullerton’s people said they were still backing the deal they had made with Rauner – but only that deal.

If the governor had quickly corrected his obvious error, this whole thing would’ve been easily cleared up. But no way would Rauner’s people even consider admitting a problem with what the boss said, instead blaming it all on Cullerton and claiming the press coverage was clearly going their way. And then late in the evening, with the media coverage going against them, Rauner’s office finally, grudgingly admitted that “Perhaps the governor was not as precise in his word selection as the Democrats would have liked.”

Even so, last week marked an important turning point.

Rauner finally got Cullerton to triangulate Madigan. Once the craziness dies down a bit, Madigan will be forced to take sides. Will he back language his own staff wrote for another bill, or will he just say “No” and begin fighting with Cullerton?

Forget the temporary blowup. That’s the real thing to watch here.

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

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