Make no mistake, pensions in Illinois are at the heart of the state's structural failings. But Gov. Bruce Rauner's pledge to scuttle a key educational funding bill, Senate Bill 1, is not the hill on which to die.
Rauner is scrambling and his agenda is a shambles. And his acts of desperation are making him more difficult to support and defend by the day.
This month's veto override that ended a two-year budget impasse was a significant loss for Illinois' Republican governor. The standoff accomplished nothing of value. That bipartisan rebuke of Rauner's veto, in many ways, left Illinois back where it started prior to Rauner taking office.
What was the point, exactly?
Taxes were hiked. Education is stressed. Pensions dominate state-level decision-making, to the detriment of college students, the elderly and those with disabilities.
As if Illinois can't go a month without crisis, the state again finds itself wondering if school districts will get the cash promised in the budget. That's because the budget releases the funds only upon the passage of a new distribution formula. SB 1 contains that new formula, which would right decades-old inequality that has hammered small, rural schools for too long.
Rauner, however, has promised a line-item veto for, perhaps, one of the legislation's most significant components that would send anywhere from $100 million to $200 million — roughly 2 percent of total educational spending — to Chicago Public School District, or CPS, to pay for its pension shortfall. Rauner's administration calls it a bailout. Lawmakers from Chicago counter that CPS is the only district in Illinois that doesn't already receive funding for pensions. In essence, the bill makes CPS whole.
Many an analyst have argued that killing the CPS pension piece would legally kill SB 1. In effect, Rauner could be issuing a full veto, whether he intended to or not.
There's no doubt that much of Rauner's consternation is about playing to his base. It's easy to bang around downstate Illinois blasting Chicago fat cats. Parochialism is good politics in a state like Illinois. But it's also an explosive chemical compound.
Divisive populist regionalism will never fix Illinois' failing pension system. It's a pointless attack on the symptom that does nothing to cure the disease.
More than two years of brinkmanship accomplished precisely zilch for Illinois. But, politically desperate, it appears Rauner is going all in as his 2018 re-election bid nears. After the budget defeat, he sacked his most senior staff. He replaced it with right-wing partisans from the Illinois Policy Institute. And now, he's banging around the state scapegoating his state's one major market.
Rauner's rightward leap risks not only his political fortunes but the well-being of his state.
In the Quad-Cities, numerous superintendents have come out in support of SB 1. It would mean millions in new revenue for districts in East Moline and Rock Island that, for too long, have struggled under the weight of an angst-ridden local tax base and Springfield's dysfunction. SB 1 would, finally, mean administrators and school boards could draft a budget with a measure of confidence about state aid.
Pensions are the problem, governor. In that, there can be no disagreement. That reality can't be fixed without a constitutional amendment, court rulings have repeatedly proven. It's a goal attainable only with Democrats and unions at the table, however. Anything else is a political impossibility.
Picking this fight with CPS is a gamble. The votes simply don't exist to pass Rauner's school funding bill, which excludes the CPS provision. Another bipartisan veto override could reduce Rauner to a lame-duck. At best, the issue heads to a protracted court case that leaves schools in the lurch well into 2018.
Republican lawmakers, including the Quad-Cities' Rep. Tony McCombie and Sen. Neil Anderson, must support an override, if it comes to that. Anything else would be joining Rauner in a political folly that solves nothing.
Or, instead, Rauner could prove to be the reasonable Republican whom we've long supported. He could sign the legislation. He could assure educational funding gets released on time. And he could start building the case for the constitutional amendment that grapples with the pension fiasco once and for all.