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Quinn, legislators gear up for Tuesday’s ‘World War III’ pension vote

Gov. PQuinn. April 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman File)

Gov. Pat Quinn. April 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

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Updated: January 4, 2014 6:37AM

Gov. Pat Quinn Monday championed a landmark pension-reform deal and vouched for its constitutionality as he and legislative leaders frantically prepared for what the governor called “the most important fiscal vote” lawmakers will ever make.

The House and Senate were poised for Tuesday votes on a package designed to rescue Illinois from its $100 billion pension crisis, but it seemed clear hours ahead of that expected action that the votes would be extraordinarily close despite an aide to Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, saying the “end is in sight.”

The adrenaline-packed day, which even included at least one political dirty trick aimed at Quinn and sympathetic Republicans, was likened by some to “World War III” because of the fierce combat going on out of public view.

Success is usually a sure bet when Quinn and the leaders are aligned on an issue. But on Monday they found themselves locked in an epic Statehouse struggle against an unlikely coalition that included labor unions, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and even Quinn’s 2010 running mate, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, all of whom came out against the bill.

“This is a historic vote — probably the most important fiscal vote a member of the Legislature will ever take in their lifetime in the Legislature — so it’s time to get it done and done right,” Quinn said after presiding over the ceremonial lighting of the state Christmas tree at the Thompson Center Monday afternoon.

“I think this is a constitutional law. I think it will be upheld by the court. But in order to get to the court, the Legislature tomorrow must vote yes, and when they do vote yes, it will come to my desk, and I’ll act accordingly,” the governor said.

The governor’s comments came on the eve of a vote that would curtail annual, compounding 3-percent, cost-of-living increases received by retired state workers, Downstate and suburban teachers and university employees, slowing the growth of their future annuities.

The deal, expected to save $160 billion over 30 years and reduce annual pension payments by as much as $1.5 billion, also would hike retirement ages for younger workers and force some of them to go as many as five years without a post-retirement increase in their pensions.

In return, existing government employees would have less withdrawn from their paychecks to cover pension premiums, and four of the five state retirement systems covered under the 327-page bill would get new powers to sue the state if it ever skipped or shorted making annual pension payments.

Labor unions led the fight against the package Monday, a day they dubbed “Pension Emergency Day,” by lighting up the switchboards in legislators’ Springfield offices at a fevered pace. State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, for example, said his Springfield office secretary would hang up from one call from a union member, only to have the phone ring again from another member opposed to the deal.

“As weary as you are in making phone calls, we need you to continue to pick up that phone, call your legislators,” said Illinois Education President Cinda Klickna in a message to teachers posted Monday on the union’s website. “It’s when we stick together that we can stop a bad bill from being passed.”

Despite Quinn’s public push, others in his administration were privately warning that Tuesday’s House and Senate votes, if they come off as planned, figure to be exceptionally tight.

“I want to convey there is no certainty, and it’s going to be very close,” one Quinn source said.

The governor fell victim to what appeared to be a political dirty trick when an email circulated in Springfield from a Google mail account bearing Quinn’s name with a message expressing his appreciation for legislators working together on a pension bill.

Attached to the prank email was a glitzy, well-produced video that took aim at Republicans willing to side with Quinn on the pension bill: “The Illinois Democratic machine would like to congratulate Gov. Pat Quinn on his 2014 re-election, and this special thanks goes to Illinois Republicans for making it possible.”

Meanwhile, the four legislative leaders who cut the pension deal last Wednesday plan to appear at an 8:30 a.m. hearing in Springfield Tuesday, when the deal is expected to be approved by a bipartisan, House-Senate panel appointed last summer and moved to the legislative chambers’ floors for votes later in the day.

A Cullerton aide said 18 out of 40 Senate Democrats are needed to pass the bill with Republicans making up the balance. Thirty votes are needed to pass the legislation, which would take effect next summer.

“The goal is to try to get 18, and it looks like the end is in sight for that, but there still is a lot of work to do,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon told the Sun-Times, insisting the Senate Democratic operation is not “overconfident” about the legislation’s prospects.

“It’s not lost on a lot of our members some of our core supporters in labor are adamantly against this so there’s still some work to do,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said her boss was working to build support for the package but would not say how close she was to having 12 “yes” votes within her caucus — or even whether a dozen constituted an agreed-upon target for Radogno.

“We’ve put more votes than anybody on pension-reform legislation, but there’s a variety of factions out there trying to pull votes off a comprehensive reform bill,” Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh said.

A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, also declined to put a target on how many House Democrats the speaker was trying to line up but expressed optimism the plan would prevail.

“I think he’s very hopeful,” Brown said when asked how Madigan assessed the bill’s chances of passing. “He thinks it’s a very solid plan.”

Madigan’s political counterpart, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, worked members in his 47-member caucus all day and “wants it to pass badly,” an aide said, but she wouldn’t predict if the votes were there for passage in the House.

“I’m not even going there. I don’t know,” Durkin spokeswoman Vicki Crawford said. “We may not know until [Tuesday] where some people are going to be at.”

Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his top aides got in on the action Monday, working the phones to shore up roughly 10 city and suburban votes in the House and Senate for the pension bill.

City Hall sources said the mayor is confident there are 30 votes in the Senate and 60 votes in the House to pass the bill.

“I’d be stunned if these things don’t pass,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

Pension relief for Chicago will not be included in the bill to be voted on Tuesday, but sources said Emanuel is OK with that. He’s confident that, once the state solves its pension crisis, Chicago will be next in line early in the spring legislative session.

The head-counting game played out Monday amid a string of elected officials weighing in pro and con on the pension legislation.

Rauner, who last week expressed “grave concerns” about the deal, was joined Monday in opposition by state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, one of his three rivals in the GOP governor’s race.

Kirk gave both candidates political cover by coming out against the bill Monday.

“The Illinois General Assembly shouldn’t pass a bill that neither lawmakers nor the voters have had time to read,” Kirk said in a prepared statement.

“What we do know is that this legislation relies heavily on accounting gimmicks, fails to prevent a permanent income tax hike, and falls short of finding the savings needed to solve Illinois’ fiscal crisis,” Illinois’ junior U.S. senator said.

Schakowsky piled on, saying the “unfair” pension proposal would steal retirees’ retirement security and place “an enormous financial burden on those who did everything right — the public employees who served our state and faithfully made their pension contributions.”

Quinn’s 2010 running mate, Simon, also came out against the plan in what looked like a strategic move to stave off potential labor backing for her GOP opponent, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who has received $79,000 from AFSCME Council 31 over the years, campaign records show.

“While I congratulate the legislative leaders who came together in a bipartisan way to produce a pension compromise, the proposed legislation puts too much of the burden on lower income workers and retirees,” Simon said.

Topinka favors an earlier, union-backed pension plan that passed the Senate but stalled in the House, an aide said Monday when asked if she supports last week’s deal by the leaders.

Dave McKinney reported from Springfield. Maudlyne Ihejirika and Fran Spielman reported from Chicago

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