Editorial: Sadly, a do-over for Legislature on pensions
The state Legislature has failed.
And failed badly.
After talking for two years about cutting state pension costs, lawmakers came up miserably short during the lame-duck session that ended Tuesday. The new General Assembly, with a complement of new legislators, begins Wednesday. All bills currently in play are officially dead and legislators must start over.
Unbelievably, no pension bills even came for a vote during the session, including a well-intended but unworkable Hail Mary from Gov. Pat Quinn late on Tuesday.
The failure will not go unnoticed.
The state’s monstrous unfunded pension liability, already approaching $100 billion, goes up by $17 million a day, Quinn says. In December, Moody’s warned that continued inaction could mean yet another downgrade. Illinois has one of the lowest bond ratings of all states.
And lawmakers hoping to ignore the pension liability will bump into it at every turn. This year’s pension bill is $7.7 billion, including pension debt, out of a roughly $33 billion budget, consuming money that otherwise could go to schools, hospitals and prisons. Lawmakers have but one choice: pass a drastic pension overhaul as soon as possible — specifically, before work on the new state budget begins in earnest.
After their stunning failure, legislative leaders said all the right things about getting back to work. The two main pension bills will be refiled immediately, one by Rep. Elaine Nekritz and Sen. Daniel Biss and another by Sen. President John Cullerton. This time around, notably, Cullerton’s bill will cover four pension systems rather than just two.
Cullerton believes only his approach is allowed under the state Constitution, which protects benefits from being diminished, and we believe his argument has merit. He proposes passing both bills and letting the Illinois Supreme Court decide which is constitutional. Nekritz said she is open to the idea, so long as it’s cleared by constitutional lawyers. That’s a big if, but at this point it’s hard to see another path forward. More input from the state’s unions also would be helpful.
The only good news is that the hard work is mostly done. The broad contours of a painful but desperately needed pension overhaul are at hand.
All that’s missing is courage.