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Playing us for chumps on pension reform and mandatory minimum sentences

Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno | Seth Perlman/AP file

Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno | Seth Perlman/AP file

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Updated: December 9, 2013 10:20AM

Wasn’t this supposed to be the big week for pension reform in Springfield?

What a joke.

As the glow that lit the Capitol Tuesday after the passage of gay marriage started to fade, it became abundantly clear there would be no action on cutting state public employee pension costs this week, the end of the fall session.

No action on the state’s $100 billion unfunded pension liability — the amount it owes for four retirement systems but has no money to pay.

The House on Wednesday voted to cut benefits for Chicago Park District employees after that agency reached a deal, a promising development. But nothing on state pensions.

There may be a special session at the end of November, we hear. Or maybe early December. And if it’s early December, might as well push it off until lawmakers return in January, the growing conventional wisdom says.

We have felt like chumps before. We’re feeling like chumps again.

All summer and early fall we kept hearing that a 10-member legislative pension committee was on its way toward a fair and workable resolution. We dared to believe that was true. But committee members, and the four legislative leaders brought in last month for a final push, can’t get a deal done.

A new plan by Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno is a key cause of the latest delay. Her plan as well as changes proposed by others are being analyzed by actuaries to determine the savings, which will take two to three weeks.

Radogno’s plan is a return to an idea floated in earlier, failed efforts: reducing retiree cost-of-living increases, as nearly every plan has proposed, but doing it so high earners take a bigger hit while lower wage, long-term employees are protected.

It’s an idea we embrace and are happy to see it back in play.

But this latest delay had better amount to something. (How often have we said that?) It cannot be a reason for yet another pension reform effort to implode.

Radogno tells us she is optimistic, that real progress has been made. And she’s right. The pension committee created a viable framework for a deal, and the differences that separate lawmakers — both in savings and in policy — are now relatively small.

That means a solution is in reach today.

Lawmakers moved mountains to bring gay marriage to Illinois. They can do the same to save the state and its retirement systems from financial ruin.

Say no to mandatory
sentences for gun crimes

Having punted again on pension reform, however, the Legislature is getting around to another hot-button issue: an effort to boost mandatory minimum sentences for felons and gang members caught illegally in possession of guns. A vote on that bill is scheduled for Thursday in the House.

Fortunately, a House committee on Wednesday stripped out the worst part of the bill, which would have increased mandatory sentences for first-time offenders, even those with perfectly clean records.

But it remains a bad bill, one that comes at a time when the rest of the nation is abandoning mandatory minimums because they haven’t delivered on their promise of reducing crime.

In an editorial last week, the Los Angeles Times even warned Illinois — calling out to our state by name — that California has been down that road and got nothing for it but crowded prisons and a “shocking diversion of public resources.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections asked this week for an extra $28 million to cover costs for the prisoners it already manages. The agency estimates that the mandatory minimum law, if passed, would require hundreds of millions of dollars more over 10 years.

The idea behind mandatory minimums is to keep potential gun criminals off the streets. But piling on new penalties without examining what really works is a mistake.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul said it just about right Wednesday, so we’ll give him the final word:

“It’s ill-advised to do reactionary law-making, and we’ve been doing it as long as I’ve been in the Legislature and longer. There’s a string of [criminal] occurrences and we say we need to enhance penalities on this crime or some other one. We do that instead of using data to scale up or scale back punishments. Instead, we do it based on gut and a press conference. We need to look at recidivism, deterrence, punishment, all that thing you’re supposed to consider.”

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