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Quinn fumbles pensions while Democrats play cynical games

Gov. PQuinn speaks with reporters Capitol Friday. |  Seth Perlman~AP

Gov. Pat Quinn speaks with reporters at the Capitol on Friday. | Seth Perlman~AP

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Updated: September 19, 2012 6:14AM

SPRINGFIELD — In Pat Quinn’s fuzzy field of political dreams, he would build a road of good intentions to solve the state’s pension funding problems, and lawmakers would magically come to their senses.

Instead, Quinn’s special session on pension reform only managed to expose just how ineffectual he can be as a leader and how overmatched he is when dealing with the General Assembly.

Not only did Quinn and the Legislature fail to make any headway Friday on solving the state’s pension woes (no great surprise), Democrats wasted the opportunity with a particularly cynical charade intended to exploit the issue for political advantage.

By floating a proposal to abolish pensions for future state legislators and statewide elected officials, House Democrats led by Speaker Mike Madigan pretended they were taking an important “first step” toward curing the underfunding problem.

Don’t be fooled. While it might sound good, the cost of legislative pensions — obscene as they are — is such an infinitesimally small part of the overall problem that eliminating them would do nothing to solve it.

Worse yet, legislators never really had any expectation of following through on the idea Friday. The Senate adjourned and left town before the House had even voted on the measure. House Democrats didn’t even push for a final vote after narrowly advancing the proposal to that stage.

Having defended Quinn’s decision to call a special session when most were saying it would be a waste of time, I feel particularly responsible to call him out for allowing it to become exactly that. When Quinn met face to face with all four legislative leaders just hours before lawmakers convened the special session, it was the first time he’d done so in more than six weeks. That’s no way to get anything done.

By that point, there was no possibility of reaching a substantive solution.

Desperate to come up with something to show for his effort, Quinn embraced the dubious plan to fix only the legislative pension plan.

Republicans blasted it as the “farce” that it was and slammed the governor for his “failure of leadership.”

But don’t let them off the hook either. Republican intransigence on the issue of shifting the cost of teacher pensions to local school districts is one of the reasons we’re at loggerheads. We still haven’t seen a comprehensive pension reform plan that we know the GOP would support.

It was Rep. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, who summed the day up best.

“We all look like idiots,” Biss said. “I’ll say it again: We all — not the governor, not the other side, not our side — we all look like idiots.”

The only problem was that Biss was arguing in favor of Friday’s legislative pension charade and admonishing Republicans not to seek partisan advantage, which put him in the same boat as the rest.

I’m all for eliminating legislative pensions — or at least scaling them way back.

But just to give you an idea how little the legislative pension system has to do with the state’s $83 billion unfunded pension liability, the governor’s office estimated the measure under consideration Friday would have saved $111 million by 2045.

That entire savings would have been wiped out in the next 10 days at the $12.6 million-a-day rate that the $83 billion is growing. That’s because of the failure to deal with the real problem: the pension systems for state and university employees and teachers.

In the aftermath of the embarrassing debacle, the weird thing was that the governor didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed.

Quinn tried to put all the blame on Republican leaders and promised a grass-roots organizing effort to get Illinois voters to rise up and force a resolution.

More power to him if he can pull it off, but if it were that easy, where has he been?

The governor will need to do a better job than he has to date of articulating the issue in a way that will get the public to respond.

When he called the special session, the governor said he expected public pressure to make it a success.

The only people I saw rise up were the public employee union members who chased him around the State Fair.

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