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If Quinn’s stunt cranks up heat, it’s not a stunt

Gov. PQuinn

Gov. Pat Quinn

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Updated: August 12, 2013 11:37AM

It is an emergency. It is a crisis. The governor does not exaggerate.

The Illinois General Assembly had better fix the state’s $98 billion unfunded pension mess, or we’re going down the tubes. From Winthrop Harbor to Cairo, Illinois will look like one of those lonesome towns you pass through on a summer road trip, with empty stores, buzzing flies and a barking dog chained to a tree.

Gov. Pat Quinn pulled a real stunt Wednesday to make just that point, suspending pay for state legislators until they pass a pension reform bill, but it’s a good stunt. We like it. Anything that grabs the public’s attention and cranks up the outrage is OK by us.

Quinn had set a July 9 deadline — also a stunt — for a special bipartisan legislative committee — kind of a stunt — to come up with a solution to the pension funding problem. Even working in crisis mode, the committee should not have been expected to produce results that fast; an actuarial analysis alone would have required more time.

But we can’t see a reason in the world, other than the same old failure of will, why the committee can’t produce a bipartisan plan by the end of the month, scored by the actuaries, ready for a vote in August during a special session of the General Assembly.

It’s not as if there is any mystery about what must be done. There are only a handful of ways, none of them popular, to dramatically reduce the state’s pension costs. The legislature must scale back retirees’ cost-of-living benefit increases — that’s where the real money is — and/or raise the retirement age and increase employee contributions.

All other options — spinning wheels that weave gold thread, magic beans, a genie in a bottle, a massive tax hike — are fairy tales.

But too few legislators have had the courage to pull the trigger. Too few elected officials of both parties have been willing to risk the wrath of the voters and employee unions. They have been thinking about the next elections, not about doing their jobs. For a real profile in courage, turn to the editorial below about Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who would rather lose his job by doing it right than curry favor with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Maybe we should make copies of that editorial, drive down to Springfield and put a copy on every legislator’s desk.

At least some members of the special legislative pension committee are annoyed that Quinn pulled this latest stunt. The governor’s decision to suspend legislators’ pay, Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) said, does “nothing to move us toward a solution” and only serves “as an unnecessary distraction.”

To which we would ask — with respect, because Nekritz has been a real leader on pension reform — an “unnecessary distraction” from what? Two more years of paralysis while the state’s pension debt grows by millions of dollars a day?

Sure, Quinn is posturing. He’s running for re-election. The governor’s announcement that he has suspending legislators’ pay was accompanied by a list of 12 ways since May 2009 that has he tried to enact pension reform. It was the press release of a candidate, not a governor.

Quinn might want to remember that a truly effective chief executive doesn’t boast about what he tried to do but about what he did do.

But if his latest stunt cranks up the heat, then it’s more than a stunt.

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