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Pension deal benefits Gov. Quinn heading into election year

Illinois Gov. PQuinn speaks with reporters after pensilegislatipassed Illinois State Capitol Tuesday Dec. 3 2013 Springfield Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks with reporters after pension legislation passed at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: January 5, 2014 6:44AM

By Tuesday night, organized labor was shouting “pension theft,” while Republican candidates for governor either grumbled about the constitution or a raw deal for taxpayers.

But once again, it was Gov. Pat Quinn who walked away smiling.

The incumbent Democratic governor just clinched his trademark issue — pension reform — after both the Illinois House and Senate advanced a controversial pension package that promised to ultimately save the state $160 billion.

This was a must-win for Quinn.

Remember this was the governor who just months ago was looking at a potential three-way primary contest. It was the governor who couldn’t get House Speaker Mike Madigan on the phone; the governor who infuriated legislative leaders by pulling lawmakers’ paychecks for “failing to do their jobs” and pass pension reform. He was the governor who called one futile special session after another.

Now, as Quinn faces re-election next year, he is the governor who forced compromise on his marquee issue. The compromise came with the help of Republican legislative leaders state Rep. Jim Durkin of Westchester and state Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont.

And it comes on the heels of Illinois in November becoming the 16th state to sign a bill legalizing same-sex marriage after just months earlier the Illinois House didn’t have the votes to even call the matter for a vote.

There’s no doubt the “ineffective governor” label once slapped on Quinn is starting to peel off.

A victory on pensions — aimed at boosting the state’s dismal fiscal shape — robs Republican rivals of their most powerful ammunition against the Democrat.

Already Tuesday, Madigan, D-Chicago, took a shot at Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Rauner, who has repeatedly called the pension compromise a bad deal for taxpayers.

“I find Bruce Rauner to be particularly disingenuous in his approach to this. My view is he would like to blow it up so he could maintain a campaign issue,” Madigan said from the Statehouse Tuesday. “So the passage of the bill, the anticipated signature by the governor — Rauner has lost one of his campaign issues.”

Rauner, a millionaire candidate who already launched a formidable TV ad campaign, has said the state should move to 401 (k) style benefits for public employees. On Tuesday, he blasted the pension fix.

“While it may help them temporarily feel better, it does little to fix the real problems facing Illinois,” Rauner said of Illinois lawmakers. “The pension system remains broken and badly underfunded. State spending has never been higher, or less productive. Another tax hike is looming around the corner. State government is in desperate need of reform.”

The only GOP gubernatorial candidate to vote for the measure was state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, who argued the bill wasn’t perfect but needed. State Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, who has U.S. Senate aspirations, made a similar argument as he voted in favor of it.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, another GOP candidate for governor, voted against the bill, while his running mate, state Rep. Jil Tracy of Quincy, voted for it. The fourth GOP candidate for governor, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, opposed the deal, saying it wasn’t constitutional.

The bill does put Quinn at odds with labor, which has generously infused his campaign funds with millions of dollars over the last 10 years. “Pension theft” was a common hashtag on Twitter Tuesday during Springfield’s budget debate. A legal challenge to the bill is underway.

Still, Chicago political consultant Don Rose — who said he agrees with unions that the bill may be unconstitutional — said Democrats likely made the labor calculation as they moved forward with the pension package.

“Where’s labor gonna go?” Rose said. “I don’t think labor is going to want to make a choice between [Quinn] and Rauner.”

Rose argued that unions, which have pumped more than $35 million into Illinois politicians’ campaigns over the last five years, have too much to lose to drop Democrats.

“They might not be as enthusiastic, they might not pump in as much money, but I doubt they would go any other way,” Rose said.

At the Statehouse following the landmark vote, Quinn was understated when asked if the pension deal helped his quest for re-election.

“I don’t know,” Quinn shrugged. “It’s up to voters. I hope people know I work for the common good.”

Contributing: Mark Brown, Dave McKinney


Twitter: @natashakorecki

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