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Brown: State’s financial problems far from over

Updated: January 5, 2014 6:44AM

SPRINGFIELD — Oh, how I wish I could tell you that the long fight to fix Illinois’ grossly underfunded public pension plans was at an end with Tuesday’s historic votes by the state Legislature.

But that wouldn’t be true.

First, there will be a court challenge — or more likely challenges — brought by state workers, teachers and their retirees, along with the unions that represent them.

And before those cases can even work their way through the system, state lawmakers will have to decide in early 2014 how they are going to handle Chicago’s pension problems — beginning with those of city teachers.

Other local officials, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle are clamoring for pension relief as well, which will combine with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s priorities to keep the issue on the front burner.

If the courts strike down the pension reform plan approved Tuesday on narrow votes by both chambers, or even if they rule out parts of it, we could be back here within a year or two to start over.

I’m not predicting the courts will find the new pension law unconstitutional, mind you, unlike many of those happy to use that as an excuse to vote against the most comprehensive pension fix ever brought forward by all four legislative leaders and a governor, in this case Pat Quinn.

I figure it could go either way, leaning slightly toward being upheld, based more on my perception of the Illinois Supreme Court as a politically sensitive body than on the fine points of contract law.

That very specific provision in the Illinois Constitution protecting public employee pensions has always appeared difficult to overcome, but Quinn and three of the four legislative leaders were not shy in asserting that this bill will pass legal muster. That notably left out a grumpy Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat who shared in the plaudits for passing a piece of legislation that he never truly liked and came to support only reluctantly to get something to the courts.

“I think the bill has serious constitutional problems. I’ve made that clear from the start,” said Cullerton, who preferred a less severe approach favored by the unions that would have required the state to make more of a trade-off with pension plan participants in return for the benefit reductions sought.

But Cullerton said he decided it was important to pass the legislation because “until the court rules, you don’t know for sure.”

Unintentionally, Cullerton’s comments helped give cover to many Republicans, including two candidates for governor — Dan Rutherford and Kirk Dillard — who used the constitutional concerns as an excuse to oppose the bill.

Only Dillard had a vote, but his reasoning came across like a guy trying to justify a strategic political decision instead of as the bipartisan statesman he has long held himself out to be. It was especially inexplicable considering that his lieutenant governor running mate, Jill Tracy, supported the measure.

This was a day where you could see who was interested in standing up and being counted as a truly serious legislator.

That’s not to say I don’t understand why many lawmakers, especially Democrats, would be loath to take away pension benefits promised and earned, especially for those who are already retired. It’s a desperate move to be reserved for dire circumstances.

But keep in mind that no retiree will receive any less money than they currently are receiving. The difference is that those pension payments won’t increase in the future as fast as they would otherwise.

This was one of those situations where if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

That’s why I give credit to everybody who stuck their necks out to make it happen, starting with Quinn, who continues to make a strong case for himself as somebody willing to doggedly deal with difficult issues.

House Speaker Mike Madigan wasn’t shy about letting everyone know that he came up with the compromise proposals that helped get all the legislative leaders to agree, and I never doubted for a minute that he’d be the one to finally make it happen — if he so desired.

Republicans leaders Christine Radogno in the Senate and Jim Durkin in the House also showed themselves as individuals willing to take risks for the good of the public — even as their party’s rising star, mega millionaire Bruce Rauner, was undercutting them by throwing everything against the pension deal in a calculated effort to keep the state in disarray.

Rauner is correct that the state’s financial problems are far from over, including its pensions, but Tuesday’s votes brought us a major step closer, no thanks to him.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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