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Pension deal is first big test for GOP House leader

Updated: January 2, 2014 6:34AM



Is this Jim Durkin’s first test by fire?

“That’s one way to look at it,” dryly said the 52-year-old state rep from Western Springs.

We were on the phone Thanksgiving morning talking about pension reform while others in our families were cooking turkeys. I was not his first phone call that day, nor would I be his last.

Durkin is the newest member of the Four Tops.

Not the ’60s singing group, of course.

But the leadership of Illinois’ General Assembly. A quartet of two Republicans and two Democrats representing the House and the Senate. A group believed to be incapable of harmony thanks to the overarching power of one of its members, House Speaker Mike Madigan. Add to that the soloist, Gov. Pat Quinn, who often sings from a separate, populist songbook.

As Sun-Times’ Springfield Bureau Chief Dave McKinney first reported on Wednesday, the seemingly impossible happened this past week. A pension reform deal was finally struck by the leaders and Quinn.

But the brutality of the upcoming vote on Tuesday in Springfield cannot be underestimated.

Not only are public employee unions fiercely opposed to any reduction in cost-of-living formulas, among other provisions they regard as poison pills. But ironically, one of the unions’ most outspoken critics is joining them in reportedly wanting the deal to die. That would be Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, whose spokespeople are willing to be quoted but not him.

What does Durkin think about that?

“Everyone who is running for governor has a right to opine and give their thoughts,” said Durkin. “I’m not running for governor. I’m not going to focus on gubernatorial candidates. I was sent to Springfield to resolve this. I want it done.”

Only one GOP candidate, Sen. Bill Brady, has offered support. A conservative, Brady was part of the bipartisan committee charged with crafting the component parts. Two other Republican candidates, Kirk Dillard and Dan Rutherford have not weighed in, though Dillard’s running mate, state Rep. Jil Tracy, like Brady, was deeply involved in the design of the details.

Illinois’ problems are a national embarrassment. We are notoriously $100 billion underfunded in our pensions and our bond ratings are rock-bottom. Then again, the so-called economic recovery has not reached nearly as many in the working class of this state as it has our richest citizens. And most government employees earn less than astronomical wages. And so they have reason to worry about their state-funded retirements.

Durkin is no lap dog for the Democrats whom he readily criticizes.

“Do I trust Democrats in Illinois with spending habits and reigning in deficits,” he asks. “No.”

But bipartisan distrust — and there’s plenty to go around — hasn’t done anything to solve Illinois’ most pressing problem.

And so Jim Durkin, in his first crucial test in the leader’s circle, is aggressively making the case that everyone has to put some skin in this game.

And now.

Email: cmarin@suntimes.com

Twitter: @CarolMarin



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