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Blame them all for pension reform failure in Illinois

Michael J. Madigan  speaker Illinois House Representatives Chairman Democratic Party Illinois gave keynote address 5th Annual Elmhurst College Governmental

Michael J. Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, and Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois gave the keynote address at the 5th Annual Elmhurst College Governmental Forum. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 6, 2012 10:24AM

SPRINGFIELD — The collapse of pension reform negotiations in the final hours of the Illinois General Assembly’s spring session Thursday night was preceded by the usual blame game — and I say don’t bother playing.

Blame them all.

This was one occasion where you would have definitely thought a bipartisan solution could have been found — an issue that everybody agreed demanded action. And yet again there was none.

As always, House Speaker Michael Madigan was right in the middle of it. As the most powerful and also most effective member of the legislature, Madigan also happens to be a master of the blame game.

Only a day earlier, Republicans were pointing to Madigan and his insistence on shifting the cost of suburban and Downstate teacher pensions from the state to local school districts as the main roadblock to pension reform.

Madigan called their bluff and dropped his push for the cost shift, which Republicans were concerned would result in higher property taxes or school cuts.

At first blush, some thought that would allow the measure to sail through the legislature.

But nothing important sails through the legislature without the speaker’s full support.

And it slowly became apparent Thursday that in dropping his sponsorship of the pension measure and tossing it into the lap of House Republican Leader Tom Cross, Madigan had sealed its doom.

I say slowly became apparent, because many of his own members were still guessing about his intentions even after a Madigan-controlled committee sent the measure to the full House first thing Thursday morning with some of his closest allies on board.

Then came word that Madigan himself intended to vote no, and the storm clouds slowly gathered until the point late Thursday evening when Cross announced that Gov. Pat Quinn had asked him to pull the plug for now — and try again in a few weeks.

In essence, Madigan was saying: Don’t blame me, blame the Republicans. It’s their bill now.

The Republicans, of course, had been telling us all along to blame Madigan, even though many admit they agree with the principle on which he was standing — that you can’t truly bring the pension costs under control once and for all until the people making the spending decisions are called upon to pay the bills.

In the blame game, both political parties put as much effort into making sure the other side gets the blame for the failure of some important piece of legislation as they put do into actually getting something accomplished.

The blame game is serious business. If played well, one side can gain political advantage over the other in the next election.

In focusing on Madigan, I’m not suggesting that he and his Democrats were any more to blame for the legislation’s failure than were the Republicans, who couldn’t put on enough votes to make it work.

Both Republicans and business leaders who have pushed the pension reform agenda were frank in their assessment that the legislation that was up for a vote on Thursday fell far short of the once-and-for-all solution that would put the problem in the rearview mirror for at least a generation.

Notably, in the aftermath of the failure, the blame rhetoric was far more muted than it had been in the run-up.

Cross had no cross words for Madigan. Quinn’s tone was more cajoling than lecturing. Madigan took no shots at Cross in expressing his disappointment that the issue hadn’t been resolved.

Publicly, at least, all sides had acknowledged in advance the importance of coming up with a solution to the pension problem, the urgency of which was cemented by threats from New York bond houses that they will make it more expensive for state government to borrow money if nothing is done. That makes this a clear failure.

The media is supposed to play a role in the blame game as the umpires who decides who gets the blame.

I understand Madigan’s point about the cost shift, if that was truly his point, as nobody is ever sure what the speaker really wants, and most have given up trying to read his mind.

In the end, though, neither party brought you pension reform. A pox on both their houses until they come back and get it right.

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