In-Depth: New General Assembly, Same Old Problems

A new session of the Illinois General Assembly begins Wednesday, when candidates who won in November’s elections take the oath of office. The outgoing class of legislators left the incoming one with quite a burden.

The 97th General Assembly adjourned without doing anything to reduce Illinois’ estimated $97 billion of pension debt.  But as Amanda Vinicky reports, there were a few last-minute tries:

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If there was a time for a pension overhaul to pass, it was yesterday.  That was the prevailing wisdom, anyway.  After all, back in September, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton signaled it would come in the New Year.
And this was the last time dozens of “lame duck” legislators, free from having to worry about their next campaign, would be able to cast a vote.  But no. First the House:

MADIGAN: “This is the motion that you’ve all been waiting for. I hereby move that this session of the General Assembly do stand adjourned sine die (cheers)”

Then, the Senate:

CLERK: “I want to thank everybody for their hard work and we have to start work immediately on the tough issues of the day starting tomorrow. So once again thank you very much and I would move that the senate adjourn sine die”

Adjourned, without sending anything to Governor Pat Quinn to ease Illinois’ ever-growing pension problem.  Not that there weren’t attempts, including a surprise, last-ditch effort by Quinn himself.

QUINN: “We have to take extraordinary action to help break the gridlock.”

That’s the governor, taking the unusual step of appearing before a legislative committee to be grilled on a newly-cooked up plan.  Quinn proposed tasking a Commission with devising a way to get Illinois’ pension systems back on track.  But not just any commission.  This would be a sort of “super committee” with extraordinary powers.  Whatever it came up with would automatically become law – UNLESS a majority of the General Assembly voted to reject it: a plan devised as an end run around political gridlock.

QUINN: “We all know this is a difficult issue for every single member, for all of us in the executive branch, and indeed for all those who are affected by the decisions. But we must have some sort of movement.  We have to understand that this is an emergency, and it does require under this emergency situation, a – I think – approach, a structure – that allows us to move forward.”

Given that it was kept secret until just before the committee, unions didn’t have much time to review Quinn’s proposal.  They didn’t need it.  Unions, who’ve battled every other pension proposal brought before the General Assembly, especially didn’t like this one.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers’ Dan Montgomery:

MONTGOMERY: “This you could say is clever. I would say, unfortunately, I think it’s a cynical and seemingly reasonable, but rather sad attempt to get something done.”

And Cinda Klickna of the Illinois Education Association:

KLICKNA: “Why do we even need a General Assembly if everything can be turned over to a commission, it’s just crazy.”

But it wasn’t just unions.  Legislators themselves mocked the plan.  Here’s Quinn’s fellow – though outspoken – Democrat, Representative Jack Franks of Marengo.

FRANKS: “This is an embarrassing, desperation ploy from a guy who can’t get anything done.”

Although Representatives passed Quinn’s measure out of a committee, several say it was mostly a courtesy to the Governor.  Then the full House adjourned without ever voting on it.  The House didn’t take up two other pension proposals either, because there weren’t enough votes to pass them.

One plan – preferred by Senate President John Cullerton – passed out of that chamber back in May.  The other garnered a lot of attention earlier this week when it got bipartisan support from a House panel.

Supporters of those separate proposals can unite in frustration that they stalled.
But otherwise the new session is starting off with a showdown between the two plans.
The main sponsors, Senate President John Cullerton and Democratic Representative Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, each have questions about the legality of the others’ plan.
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno says it leaves her concerned that NOTHING will get accomplished.

RADOGNO: “When you look at the dynamic of the General Assembly, the Democrats have had clear, clear majorities now for ten years. Republicans have worked very hard on pension reform … The problem is the Democrat majorities do not agree on pension reform, and frankly I’m not sure they want it.”

Despite Radogno’s pessimism, both Cullerton and Nekritz say they’re willing to compromise.  Part of the rush to pass something – anything – is to hold off the bond rating agencies, which have threatened to lower Illinois’ already-weak credit rating.
Cullerton says there’s no need for them to rush to judgment over the standstill.

CULLERTON: “The pension system in the state are in no way bankrupt. It’s just not true … we’re behind in paying our bills. The pension system is less underfunded than it was in 1970.”

But Illinois already has the lowest credit rating of any state.  And some legislators speculate … fear, even … that it’ll take a FURTHER downgrade to force reluctant politicians to get on board.  While individual lawmakers have their own reasons for opposing various plans … Representative Nekritz says there’s one, overarching reason:

NEKRITZ: “This is a really difficult for vote for members to take. We’re taking hundreds of thousands of people and impacting their pocketbook in a very direct way. In a way that says I made you a promise and I can’t keep it. And that’s a really hard thing to do.”

That difficulty doesn’t go away, even if there are fresh faces in the General Assembly … fresh faces who, as of today, will begin building up pensions of their own.
I’m Amanda Vinicky.

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