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Madigan’s Machiavellian machinations thwart pension reform

Illinois Speaker House Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) is shown this August file photo.

Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) is shown in this August file photo.

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Updated: September 20, 2012 10:12AM

Republicans can despise him.

Downstaters can denounce him.

State Fair attendees can boo him till their cows come home.

But no one can deny the Machiavellian cunning and genius of House Speaker Michael Madigan.

At the special session of the Legislature on Friday in Springfield, public employee unions and retirees jammed the Capitol rotunda in loud protest of possible pension cuts. But the Democrats who control this state knew they had to at least look — to voters if not to bond houses — as though they were doing something to staunch the pension bleeding that puts Illinois in last, worst place among states with looming fiscal catastrophes.

And with every seat in both the Democratically controlled House and Senate up for election in November, few had the courage to anger suburban teachers, prison guards or university employees when campaign cash and votes are at stake.

That’s why nobody believed a pension solution could happen before the general election.

Ah, but pressure was mounting.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who hadn’t met with the four leaders of the General Assembly in the same room in two months, called this special session to try to assert his authority. Given that Quinn’s poll numbers are practically south of the Illinois border, he needed to snatch victory from the jaws of pension defeat.

Madigan, in his own devious way, came prepared to oblige. And so, behind closed doors, away from the boos of the protesters, out of reach of the public, the plan was hatched.

The symbolism of it was stunning. The substance of it — forgive my bluntness — sucked.

Madigan’s House on Friday afternoon took up a measure that wouldn’t touch four of the state’s five pensions systems — not teachers, not state workers, not judges, not university personnel.

Hardly a drop in the bucket.

Of the estimated $83 billion pension hole that Illinois has dug for itself, the pensions the House considered cutting would amount to a mere $50 million by one estimate or .003 percent of the hole we need to fill.

And yet, all the pre-election theatrics were firmly in place. The ox that Madigan’s House members would pretend to gore would be — yes — their own. The pensions of legislators and the governor would allegedly be reduced going forward. Members elected after 2013 would not get a pension at all.

Wow, you might say. Those lawmakers needed to swallow the first, bitter dose of fiscal pain and they did.

Look closer.

First, lawmakers in the House knew the bill didn’t have the full 60 votes to pass a third reading and be sent over to the Senate.

Second, the Senate had already gone home anyway! Time to take the word “special” out of “special session” forever.

When will they all come back? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Not. Until. After. The. Election.

In the meantime, legislative candidates who might be facing a tough opponent can print political fliers saying, “Look, I voted to cut my own pension!”

Bragging rights to a failed system. Failed leadership. Fraudulent government.

Don’t get me wrong, here. All of them — Democrats, Republicans and Quinn — wear the jacket on this one.

But the taxpayers of Illinois bear the unbearable burden.

And Mike Madigan?

He’s the boss.

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