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Editorial: Quinn’s right — it’s time to tackle Medicaid, pensions

Updated: March 24, 2012 9:02AM

Now you’re talking, Governor.

Pat Quinn stepped up Wednesday and pulled no punches in describing all the big financial problems facing Illinois and the need to fix every one of them now.

“Don’t plan on going home for the summer until we get this job done,” Quinn told the Illinois General Assembly in his annual budget address.

We heard a stir in the chamber. Some of these folks have lake cottages.

The governor was referring specifically to the need to get Medicaid spending under control, but the urgent tone and substance of his speech made clear he’s of a mind — dare we say finally? — to also beat into submission the state’s monstrous pension burden and reduce state spending from Gurnee to Cairo.

All the man has to do now is, um, get it done.

What we liked best about Quinn’s speech was his willingness to list out loud some of the horribly unpopular measures, especially for a union-backed Democratic governor, that must be “on the table” to set the state on a path to financial good health. Such as taking a chop at future pension benefits for state employees.

“I want to repeat,” Quinn said. “Everything is on the table for our pension working group. Historical funding practices, employer contributions, employee contributions, the retirement age and the cost of living.”

We heard a stir in union offices across the state.

Better yet, Quinn set an April 17 deadline for this working group, led by one of his top advisors, Jerry Stermer, to come up with a pension reform plan that has the votes.

It won’t be easy. It will be hard. Nobody will like it. We won’t like it.

We’re already wondering, to cite one example, how the state can shift part of the pension burden back to downstate and suburban school districts — an idea being floated — without driving up property taxes in poor and working-class towns and suburbs. But, at the same time, we also see the logic. School districts will never stop doling out employee pensions taxpayers can’t afford until they are forced to foot part of the bill.

And the governor’s bold talk continued.

He proposed closing down 59 state facilities, including a couple of prisons, to save $88.9 million in the next fiscal year alone. That’s the kind of serious downsizing, whatever the merits of the specific closings, that is long overdue.

He proposed cutting Medicaid expenditures by $2.7 billion. And, here again, he dared to list the various unpopular measures that might be necessary to hit that target. “To reduce cost pressures,” he said, “we need to reconsider the groups who are eligible for Medicaid, the services we cover under the program, the utilization of these services and the way and amount we pay for them.”

We heard a stir in the offices of the Illinois State Medical Society.

Actually, they faxed us a statement after the speech.

“Patching Illinois’ budget shortfall on the backs of physicians is bad fiscal policy,” the doctors said.

They might be right. But when a state finds itself in such dire financial shape, there are no good fiscal policies, certainly no palatable ones.

Just different degrees of bad.

Consider this: Illinois is expected to pull in an extra $720 million in revenue this year, which sounds pretty good. But the state’s pension bill will jump by $1.1 billion.

If Quinn and the state’s legislative leaders do nothing this year but solve the Medicaid and pension problems, they will go down in Illinois history as great statesmen.

They may also get voted out of office by an angry mob. That’s what happened to Gov. Dick Ogilvie in 1972 after he bravely pushed through the state’s first income tax.

But Ogilvie had his priorities right.

Let’s hope Quinn does too.

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