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Plenty of fumbles, no yards gained in Illinois’ Pension Bowl

Updated: February 10, 2013 6:16PM

SPRINGFIELD — Maybe it was the hangover from Notre Dame’s loss in the BCS championship game a night earlier, but football metaphors consumed the Capitol in the waning hours of the Legislature.

It started with Gov. Pat Quinn —“our quarterback’’ in the words of one legislator — offering a half-hearted Win One for the Gipper speech on behalf of pension reform. This devolved later into Quinn making a play that many described as a “desperate Hail Mary pass” and ended with him taking a similar whooping to the Fighting Irish.

Luckily for him, legislative leaders imposed their own version of a slaughter rule, calling off the game before it got that far by adjourning the 97th General Assembly without bringing any pension proposal to a vote that would have highlighted his futility.

The new General Assembly gets sworn in Wednesday, which means legislators start all over with trying to solve the state’s pension crisis amid predictions from Democrats that it should go faster this time.

Maybe things will go more smoothly, but it seems nearly as likely we’ll be right back in the same place two years from now at the end of another lame-duck session, and possibly with a lame-duck governor.

On the positive side, Quinn has made solving the pension problem his top priority and put real effort into it — the first governor I can remember doing that. He’s also shown himself to be very flexible, not wedded to any one approach, and nobody ever doubts his sincerity.

The downside is that passing bills in the General Assembly “is not [Quinn’s] strength,” as Senate President John Cullerton indelicately put it when asked about the governor’s legislative performance. He’s just not very adept at it.

Passing legislation IS the strength of Cullerton and his fellow Democrat, House Speaker Michael Madigan, which considering their stated support for doing something on pension reform might lead a reasonable person to question how hard they really tried.

I made the mistake of interpreting Madigan’s remarks last week about wanting to pass a pension bill this week as real commitment on his part to making something happen. I saw no evidence of him doing that in Springfield this week, although I didn’t see any sign he was standing in the way either.

As Cullerton explained, with both Democrats and Republicans among the opponents of the pension proposals being considered, any solution will need bipartisan support.

When negotiators made concessions over the weekend to attract Republicans to a compromise proposal, the changes only ended up driving away Democratic support.

The failure of the proposed pension legislation was seen as good news by public employee groups, who objected that Quinn and legislators are trying to solve their funding problems on the backs of workers and retirees.

They’re right about that. The legislative proposals attempt to close the funding shortfall mainly by reducing cost of living increases and increasing employee contributions. The problem is that nobody seems to have a better idea that doesn’t involve a tax increase — and it’s their pensions at risk.

Quinn’s Hail Mary was really more of a bypass than a pass.

He called for an end run around the legislative logjam that has stymied pension reform by creating a special eight-member Pension Review Commission that would do the Legislature’s work for it.

The commission would have had the power to make reports with the effect of law unless both chambers of the General Assembly voted to reject its recommendations.

There are all kinds of problems with doing that, not the least of which is that it’s rather undemocratic, which violates Quinn’s own long-held political principles to make government more democratic not less.

“I think it will move the ball forward,” said Quinn, who compared his idea to the federal government’s Base Closing Commission.

I thought House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn-Currie was closer to the mark with yet another football analogy when she described Quinn’s move as “punting.” Flynn-Currie questioned the constitutionality of entrusting such matters to a commission.

I imagine Quinn’s idea sounds good to some people, taking the power away from the Legislature, and maybe it will sound better to me after a few more months or years of inaction. But springing it at the last minute just looked desperate and weak.

Another opportunity missed. Another opportunity awaits.

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