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Pension mess isn’t Mike Madigan’s fault

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 21, 2013 2:24AM

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has taken a journalistic thwacking for many supposed sins — including allowing the State of Illinois to sink into a fiscal cesspool. In particular, he is allegedly responsible for allowing the state’s unfunded pension liabilities to rise to levels where they now threaten the state’s finances.

The argument is roughly this: Since the 1994 pension funding law was enacted, the liabilities have mushroomed; Michael Madigan has dominated the House — and state government — throughout this period. Therefore, it must be his fault.

The argument is wrong.

No one person or party is responsible for the mess we’re in. Republicans controlled the governorship and the Senate when the 1994 pension funding law was enacted. The 1994 law “back-end-loaded” pension funding, which made inevitable huge increases in unfunded liabilities. Both parties share responsibility for the generous pension terms. The power of the unions reaches many Republicans as well as Democrats. Anyone who thinks that the speaker could have achieved fundamental reform simply by issuing a political decree to members of his caucus radically underestimates the unions’ ability to protect their sweet pension deals.

Speaker Madigan well understands the threat posed by the pensions — both the state plans and the City of Chicago’s. When a civic group reported on this problem over six years ago, saying that unless it was fixed, the state’s finances would “implode,” the speaker urged every member of the House to read the report and act on the recommendations. He also successfully managed through the Legislature a pension reform bill dealing with “new” employees — a step in the right direction.

The speaker likewise understands the constitutional issues involved. Some reforms have a better chance of surviving judicial review than others. Also, he knows there is no point to enacting pension “reform” that will not solve the problem, or which will make it worse by contractually “guaranteeing” funding at unsustainable levels.

Madigan’s rejection of the recent union request for a “summit” provides some ground for optimism. He pointed out that labor has “strongly opposed” efforts to fix the state’s finances, and has not come forward with an “honest proposal” — one that recognizes that the current plans put state workers ahead of, rather than on par with, private sector workers who cannot retire with full pensions and COLAs at age 55 (like state workers) or age 50 (in Chicago).

The speaker now has a veto-proof majority in the House, as does President John Cullerton in the Senate. They have enhanced political muscle they can apply to members of their own caucuses, and they have the prospect of some support from Republicans who understand the terrible risk of continued can-kicking. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a natural ally because the city’s pensions cry out for reform as well.

Some cynics speculate that the speaker might be motivated to get this fixed because of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s gubernatorial aspirations. Maybe. But I think he’d like to get it fixed on the merits, no matter who becomes governor.

It would be a great achievement, one for the history books.

One thing is clear. If the speaker wants to get this done, there’s at least a fighting chance. If he doesn’t, it won’t happen. And Illinois’ future will be a lot bleaker for everybody — particularly organized labor.

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