Springfield forecast: Gambling expansion iffy, pension reform murky
BY DAVE MCKINNEY AND ANDREW MALONEY Staff reporters June 1, 2012 9:02PM
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks with reporters in his office at the Illinois State Capitol Friday, June 1, 2012 in Springfield, Ill. Quinn responds to lawmakers challenging him once again with legislation that would expand gambling across the state, the failure to pass pension reforms and how lawmakers dealt with two measures affecting the state's overcrowded prisons. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: July 7, 2012 8:05AM
SPRINGFIELD — The Legislature ended an otherwise productive spring session this past week with little love for Gov. Pat Quinn.
Legislators refused to give the Democratic governor what he wanted most — and then moved to force on him what he didn’t want at all.
Despite weeks of wrangling, lawmakers denied Quinn his top priority: a landmark pension reform package designed to cut budget-draining benefits for current and retired government workers.
Then in the final hours of the session Thursday, they dropped in Quinn’s lap what he derisively called a “shiny object,” a major casino-expansion package that includes a Chicago casino.
Looking ahead, the good and bad news for Quinn is that neither initiative might come to fruition.
It’s easy to envision a scenario where a gambling package Quinn dissed for having “ethical shortcomings” — but that Mayor Rahm Emanuel nonetheless backed — never materializes despite passing both legislative chambers.
The outlook on pensions is considerably murkier, though not necessarily any more optimistic — although just hours after the package fell apart, Quinn still vowed his vision was no pipe dream.
‘This must be done’
The fate of the pension package is harder to read because of the manner in which it self-combusted in the House in a bitterly partisan flash.
The governor sounded upbeat on Friday as he vowed to herd the four legislative leaders together in the next week to try jumpstarting talks on the issue — before bond-rating agencies take note of Illinois’ inertia on pensions by possibly taking another pound of flesh from the state’s credit rating.
“I think it’s something within our grasp,” the governor said Friday of a possible pension deal. “We’re close, and I really feel all four leaders feel as I do this is imperative, that this must be done.”
The pension framework Quinn first put on the table was designed to eradicate Illinois’ $83 billion pension crisis by convincing current and retired state workers, educators and lawmakers to accept a less-generous annual pension increase in exchange for keeping state health insurance and, for current employees, having future pay hikes factored into their pensions.
While unions opposed those provisions as unconstitutional and promised a legal challenge, Quinn and the legislative leaders didn’t quibble on those elements of the plan. The key dispute was over how — or whether — to have suburban and Downstate school systems assume $800 million in obligations from the state over 13 years to cover the cost of educators’ pensions.
House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) favored the cost shift as does House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego). But the GOP leader opposed language to implement it over fears it could lead to big property tax increases or necessitate program cuts as schools on his and his members’ political home turf grappled with the new costs.
Quinn administration officials and other supporters counter that school districts can keep a tighter lid on teacher salaries, do budgetary streamlining and, for those school systems that have them, dip into reserves to cover the gradual ramping up of pension costs.
The impasse over the cost-shift kept both Madigan and Cross, at various times sponsoring the same pension bill, from amassing the 60 votes it needed to pass. Because the issue didn’t get resolved before a midnight Thursday adjournment deadline, a constitutional provision kicked in, requiring 71 votes to pass the House and an equally proportional higher threshold in the Senate.
Procedurally, that makes the job of assembling a roll call to move what Quinn called the “reform of our lifetime” significantly harder. Leaders from both parties — who just days ago were yelling at one another — will have to reach a solution in an election year or face the very real possibility of having the issue — as it is perennially — pushed down the road.
“We need to find in a bipartisan way, on both sides, a solution to this pension issue,” said Cross, who despite offering no details, insisted a resolution “is a summer issue, not a fall issue, and it’s an issue that needs to be done.”
A legislative Hail Mary
The Chicago casino and other expansions of gambling are an even more of a long shot.
The Senate approved the expansion 30-27 late Thursday, but the prospects appear iffy despite having the mayor’s backing and passing both legislative chambers for a second straight year.
Last year’s even bigger package was never sent to Quinn amid fears he’d veto it, and too few votes existed to override him.
Emanuel resumed his cheerleading of the expansion on Friday.
“I’ve been consistent since the campaign. One, we have gambling or a casino. It happens to be in Hammond, Ind. We lose $20 million a month of people who’d be at a Chicago casino going to Hammond,” the mayor told reporters.
“Hammond uses their money to send the kids of Hammond to college. I would like to use the resources of a Chicago casino to rebuild and modernize our school system so our kids are going to schools that are modern.”
The drafters of the latest plan — state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills) and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) — served up a scaled-back version this year.
But Quinn has shown little interest despite the bill’s promise of hundreds of millions of dollars in new state revenues.
Besides a Chicago casino, the bill would set up casinos in the south suburbs, Lake County and two Downstate locations while permitting slot machines at racetracks and expanding the number of gambling positions at existing casinos.
The package lacked some of the key ethical planks that Quinn has insisted upon, such as a ban on campaign contributions from gambling interests, but Link and Cullerton — in a legislative Hail Mary aimed at appealing to the governor — introduced separate legislation Thursday that contained those requests.
Without making an outright veto threat, the governor reacted tepidly to the Legislature’s latest handiwork on gambling.
‘The paramount issue’
But like a poker player failing to fill an inside straight, supporters of the expansion failed to hit the number of votes needed in the House and Senate to override a Quinn veto or amendatory veto.
Despite drawing the bare-minimum 30 votes required for passage in the Senate, the bill fell short of the 36-vote threshold to override a Quinn veto. In fact, in all likelihood, there may even be only 29 Senate supporters of the plan because state Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago), an opponent of the package, said state Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago) cast a “yes” vote on her behalf when she was away from her desk.
That means it’s hard to see how the Senate, which has been the incubator for gambling package after gambling package over the years, really has the oomph to outplay Quinn on the issue.
But Cullerton dismissed such talk.
“We won’t have to,” Cullerton told reporters, when asked about mustering enough of his members to override Quinn. “I suspect that we will have an agreement with the governor so we’ll only need 30 votes. And we’ll work on that in the veto session.”
Whether Cullerton is right depends entirely on the outcome of the pension legislation that he watched blow up on the other side of the Capitol. That is what has the governor’s attention right now — not the steady ca-ching, ca-ching of new slot machines paying out across the state.
“It’s obvious for me, and I think the overwhelming majority of people in Illinois, until you resolve the pension issue, with its $83 billion unfunded liability, with its squeeze on our schools, on our health care, on our public safety, that’s the paramount issue and nothing else should take its place,” Quinn said. “That’s how I feel, and I’ve been saying that for a long time.”
Contributing: Fran Spielman