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Brown: Bracing for impact of pension crisis

Updated: August 20, 2013 6:45AM



Mayor Rahm Emanuel may soon start having nightmares in which he is the pilot of a jumbo jetliner critically low on fuel that is circling O’Hare and waiting permission to land.

The complication is that he’s up there in the sky in the same holding pattern with an Air Illinois plane in the same bad shape, if not worse, piloted by Gov. Pat Quinn.

And the air traffic controllers, taking the form of House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, are telling Emanuel that he’s going to have to wait his turn.

They can’t bring the city plane in for a landing until they’ve brought the state plane safely to ground. Lots of turbulence, you see. Narrow runway. Can’t agree on which way the wind is blowing.

That, in essence, is the dilemma accentuated by Thursday’s decision by a Wall Street ratings agency to sharply downgrade Chicago’s bond rating because of its pension crisis.

State legislators recognize the city has a pension problem, as does Cook County and many smaller municipalities around the state.

But as everyone knows, they’ve got their hands full at the moment trying to solve their own pension problem.

As a result, lawmakers and Quinn are taking the position it’s just too complicated to try to fix all at once. Better to work out a solution to the state’s pension crisis and then use that as a model for dealing with the rest.

Emanuel, nervously eyeing that fuel gauge, has been pressing instead for legislators to take on the city pensions at the same time as the state pensions — under the old theory it hurts less to pull off the bandage all at once.

Emanuel also worries that legislators may be in less of a hurry to get back to dealing with the city if the state goes first.

Now, to make matters even more complicated, another plane has suddenly appeared on the radar (it was there all along but not everybody was paying attention.) This one is from the Chicago Public Schools — and it absolutely is on the verge of crashing if it doesn’t find a way to deal with a $400 million higher payment due the teachers pension fund.

Emanuel is at the helm there, too, via remote control. He thought he’d at least arranged a temporary fix to keep the teachers pensions aloft earlier this summer, until Quinn threatened to veto the legislation without state pension reform first.

If Illinois lawmakers don’t start landing these planes soon, Emanuel won’t be the only one having the nightmare.



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