Lame-duck session ends with no pension reform
BY DAVE MCKINNEY AND ZACH BUCHHEIT Staff reporters January 8, 2013 9:20PM
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, left, and Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Des Plaines, right, shake hands during a House committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, in Springfield Ill. The long-awaited plan to address Illinois' $96 billion pension problem cleared an early hurdle Monday, as the Illinois House committee approved a proposal that freezes cost-of-living increases and calls for higher employee contributions. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: February 10, 2013 6:17PM
SPRINGFIELD — On the last day of the lame-duck legislative session, Gov. Pat Quinn and the Democratic-led Legislature laid a gigantic goose egg Tuesday by failing to deliver a fix to Illinois’ paralyzing $95 billion pension crisis.
By the end of the day, the House adjourned without so much as taking a vote on either a plan carried by state Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) that would have cut retirement benefits for public employees or on a separate, last-ditch alternative by Quinn that one union critic derisively dubbed a “desperate Hail Mary.”
Likewise, a Senate-passed plan favored by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) that would have made retirees choose between forgoing either a cost-of-living boost or state-subsidized health care never saw the light of day in the House.
The anti-climatic end to the 97th General Assembly had even the powerful leader of the House, Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago), at a loss for words as he contemplated starting the whole process of pension reform from scratch this spring.
“You know, it’s kinda hard to have thoughts, isn’t it?” Madigan said as he left the Capitol.
The inertia leaves Illinois open to another potential round of downgrades from Wall Street bond-rating agencies that will increase state borrowing costs. And it means Quinn and lawmakers face the very real possibility of having to put together a budget for next year with the same meat-cleaver approach as in years past.
The day started Tuesday with Quinn demanding that lawmakers vote on a pension plan, though it was soon clear that the Nekritz plan was mortally wounded and far short of votes in the House.
Opposed by public-employee unions, her pension plan was built around a six-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments for retired state workers and Downstate and suburban teachers. But it never seemed to top roughly 45 votes in the House, where 60 votes are needed to pass a bill.
Quinn then floated a new idea to establish an eight-member commission that would have the power to impose binding benefit cuts on retired state workers and Downstate and suburban teachers that only the Legislature could undo.
While the governor took the unusual step of presenting his plan to the House Personnel & Pensions Committee and got the panel’s 7-2 blessing, the No. 2 House Democrat, Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), called Quinn’s approach unconstitutional and unions lined up in unison against it.
“I’d characterize this as a desperate Hail Mary pass,” said Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO.
Once on the House floor, the governor’s plan appeared to have less support than the Nekritz proposal,with one key House Democrat saying it potentially would havee had as many as 100 of the 118 House members against it if it had been put up for a vote.
Madigan adjourned the House with no action on either pension plan, triggering finger-pointing throughout the Capitol.
The top Senate Republican questioned whether he or Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) had any serious intent in passing pension reform.
“The problem is the Democrat majorities do not agree on pension reform, and frankly, I’m not sure they want it,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont).
“I think Madigan and Cullerton don’t agree on a framework, and that’s a huge problem. And, of course, we have a governor that is unable to bring people together,” she said.
Madigan shot back at Radogno: “What about her responsibility? What does she see her role as?”
Cullerton, meanwhile, defended the governor’s work on pensions, though in a backhanded fashion.
“I think the guy’s done a good job. Now, it’s not his strength passing legislation in the General Assembly. You know that. So, he’s never really been in the General Assembly,” Cullerton said. “But the four leaders have been here. We know how to pass bills.”
One ally of Quinn’s allies said he “put everything out there on the field today” with his press secretary refusing to take the bait on any suggestion the governor played a role in the inaction.
“Excuses and finger-pointing don’t solve the problem,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said. “The people of Illinois are paying the price for every day of inaction on pension reform, and we’ve got a job to do. The governor is clearly disappointed from the inaction, but he won’t let it detract from this important issue that must be resolved to put Illinois back on sound financial footing.”