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Brown: Concerns over pension bill little more than excuses for inaction

Updated: February 9, 2013 6:32AM

SPRINGFIELD — Now come the excuses.

Even as a bipartisan group of House Democrats and Republicans moved forward Monday with a workable — if imperfect — solution to Illinois’ pension crisis, legislators were preparing their excuses why they will not vote for it.

Some said it should have included a provision to steer more if not all government workers toward 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement plans.

Others said the measure fell short by exempting state judges from the pain being inflicted on members of other pension plans.

Yet another argued it should have provided more money for the underfunded retirement systems by taxing pension payments.

Some didn’t like this. Others didn’t like that. Let’s just go back and study it some more to be sure we get it right, they argued.

Like I was saying: excuses, excuses, excuses. From both Democrats and Republicans.

Sure, some of the concerns are valid. But this is why we have so much trouble fixing the big problems in Illinois.

Nobody wants to face up to the fact that there are no perfect solutions that make everybody happy, certainly not with a problem this extensive — $95 billion in pension promises with no money to pay for them, a hole that is decades old and growing $17 million deeper every single day.

I was thinking over the weekend that what Illinois needs is its own fiscal cliff — an artificial deadline after which we are told everything will go to hell in a handbasket if we don’t do something.

Then I realized: we already slid off the cliff years ago and tumbled to the bottom of a deep gully, where we still find ourselves wandering about, although surprisingly few seem to realize it.

The 97th Illinois General Assembly is scheduled to complete its business Tuesday, and the outlook for pension reform in those final hours grew increasingly bleak Monday despite a House committee approving a bill on a 6-3 vote.

The House adjourned Monday without putting the legislation to a vote of the full chamber, and there’s no guarantee it will do so Tuesday.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), the bill’s lead sponsor, acknowledged proponents “still have quite a ways, quite a bit of work to do” to round up the necessary 60 votes. Legislative leaders usually prefer not to take a vote unless they can promise a positive outcome.

Then the measure would still have to clear the Senate, where President John Cullerton is known to be hostile to the House-drafted legislation, preferring his own approach for how to decrease pension benefits for government workers without violating the state Constitution that would seem to prohibit that.

All the while, Gov. Quinn continues to plead with legislators to do something, ANYTHING.

Anything could still happen, but the most likely outcome is the one in plain sight: more of the status quo.

The just-elected 98th General Assembly takes office at noon Wednesday, at which point all legislation starts over.

The only opponents I respect are the ones who are openly taking the side of the public employee unions, which have raised understandable concerns that the state’s pension problems are being fixed on the backs of workers alone in a manner that may be unconstitutional.

“What’s missing in that bill is shared sacrifice,” said Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrington.

By that, he means taxpayers should be coming up with their share of money to close the gap, instead of relying entirely on employee concessions that include higher contributions and cuts to their cost-of-living adjustments as the Nekritz bill contemplates.

The unions have suggested “closing tax loopholes” on businesses, which the business community reads as tax increases.

As Nekritz pointed out, a good argument could be made that taxpayers have been doing their part since the Legislature approved a record income tax increase two years ago.

In truth, that did nothing to solve the pension problem, but it contributed to creating a poor climate for asking the public to help out the state workers and teachers whose pensions are at stake.

You may be tired of reading about this problem. I’m a little tired of writing about it. But this is the most important financial and policy issue facing the state, and every time we throw up our hands, it just gets worse.

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