As Senate President John Cullerton sees it, Governor Bruce Rauner “needed an excuse” to veto a bill last week that would’ve given the Chicago Public Schools $215 million for its June 30 pension payment. And Cullerton believes he turned out to be that excuse.

There’s little doubt that Rauner was likely to veto the proposal, which passed in June with Rauner’s support contingent upon a pension-reform agreement by early January. Rauner’s office was already privately threatening to veto it as part of the ever-escalating war over a “stopgap” budget with House Speaker Michael Madigan. And one of the biggest reasons Rauner ran for governor in the first place was his view that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) had “won” its 2011 strike and needed to be severely reined in or even broken. “Starve the beast” to force teacher layoffs would be one way to hobble that union.

Not to mention that the governor and his top people have been convinced for months that Madigan wouldn’t ever come to terms on a pension-reform deal. A proposal backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to make changes to the pension laws for non-educator employees at the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system is opposed by the CTU, and Madigan and that union have become super-tight since Rauner’s inauguration. The relationship only strengthened when the CTU backed Madigan during his primary campaign earlier this year.

It probably didn’t help matters when Cullerton suggested to Rauner during a meeting earlier last week that it would be a whole lot easier to pass a pension-reform bill if the governor reached a contract agreement with AFSCME. Rauner, who has often referred to the state-employee union as “AF-Scammy” and said during his campaign that he might have to “take a strike” to bring the union to heel, told Cullerton in no uncertain terms that the two issues were not connected and would not be connected. This from the same guy who wants to connect term limits to passing a budget.

And then after December 1’s meeting at the Statehouse, Cullerton was asked about the timeline of the pension-reform negotiations so that CPS could get its $215 million. “You’re talking about two different bills,” Cullerton said. “We haven’t talked about putting those two things together at this point in time.”

Reporters followed up, saying they thought there was a deal tying the two topics together. Cullerton said that was the governor’s plan. Rauner, he said, had declared he wouldn’t sign the CPS bill without a pension agreement, but that the Democratic leaders had always reserved the right to override if that didn’t happen.

The governor’s people only heard Cullerton say there was no deal. They claimed he was deliberately blowing things up and were furious about it. The governor’s veto of the CPS legislation soon emerged: “Breaking our agreement undermines our effort to end the budget impasse and enact reforms with bipartisan support,” Rauner wrote in his veto message.

The move took Cullerton by surprise. He agreed during a chat with me later in the day that he’d put a parliamentary hold on the bill in June in order to “buy time to negotiate the pension reform.” But he denied that he’d broken any agreement. “Pension reform was the price for signing the bill,” he admitted, but “I was always reserving the right to try to override” a CPS funding veto if that deal couldn’t be done.

“They misunderstood what I said, and they should’ve called and asked me and I would’ve gone back out and clarified it,” Cullerton insisted. “They just vetoed the bill.” That failure to reach out to him convinced Cullerton that Rauner was simply looking for any excuse to kill the CPS bill.

Cullerton insisted that he was serious about trying to negotiate a pension-reform deal. “I’m the only one pushing the pension-reform stuff. He hasn’t actually worked on passing any bills,” Cullerton said of Rauner.

Cullerton didn’t deny that he’d brought up settling the AFSCME contract with Rauner, but he said it was a “logical” step to take to find the necessary votes to pass a pension-reform bill. Plenty of Republican legislators, after all, have state employees in their districts. “You don’t just go out there and pass a bill,” he said, adding, “They don’t know how to pass a bill.”

They do know how to veto one, though.

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

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