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Copper doors make pension reform hard sell

Updated: October 23, 2013 6:24AM



Bill Daley’s withdrawal from the governor’s race pretty much snuffed out the “Statehouse doors” controversy.

The late-summer scandal quickly cranked up to full roar after details emerged that a set of six, custom-made doors on the newly remodeled Western wing of the Illinois Statehouse cost almost $700,000.

I was on vacation during much of the uproar, but I figured this would happen years ago when the remodeling began. This kind of thing always happens.

The last time the remodelers were turned loose, the press went nuts over some $400 doorknobs. The cost of a new rug for the secretary of state made big headlines as well one year.

The Statehouse itself was over-budget when it was built in the 19th Century, so I’m sure there was plenty of public screaming way back then, too.

I gathered from the rather blasé response by the state legislative leaders who were in charge when the building was remodeled that they expected there’d be outrage about something. If it wasn’t the doors, then it would’ve been something else. And, frankly, even if the doors had only cost half as much, there might very well have been a hue and cry about that price, too.

The usual response to media events like this is to lie low, issue a terse press statement insisting that the overall work was well worth the price and that the little extras like copper-plated doors represented only a tiny fraction of the cost of much-needed upgrades to an outdated building, then wait patiently for the storm to blow over, which it apparently has.

It’s all just part of a very old and predictable game. Reporters, columnists and editorial writers complain, a few publicity-seeking legislators send out press releases denouncing the overspending, the governor jumps in with his own criticisms, but it’s too late to do anything about it.

And irony of ironies, in just a few days, Statehouse reporters themselves will be moving into their spiffy new Capitol digs, for which they (including me) pay no rent.

I’m not trying to excuse the spending, I’m just telling you how it’s always been in order to set up the rest of this column, which is about pensions.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, Gov. Pat Quinn and the two Republican legislative leaders, along with their cheerleaders in big business, support a pension reform plan that relies heavily on so-called “police powers” to pass constitutional muster.

The legal minds who came up with this say the idea is that Illinois’ fiscal situation is so dire that the state has no choice but to break the state Constitution’s guaranteed contractual right to public pension benefits that can neither be diminished nor impaired.

In fact, Madigan’s own pension reform bill that he introduced earlier this year included a preamble which declared: “the fiscal crisis in the State of Illinois jeopardizes the health, safety, and welfare of the people and compromises the ability to maintain a representative and orderly government.”

Yet, somehow, the fiscal crisis wasn’t quite dire enough to persuade legislators to put off spending $50 million on a Statehouse remodeling project that included $670,000 for copper-plated doors, $300,000 for chandeliers and $80,000 for a couple of statues.

Make no mistake, pension costs are crowding out spending on other much-needed state programs, particularly education. There really is a crisis.

It’s just going to be a bit tougher now to square that reality with this large Statehouse remodeling tab if and/or when a new pension law finally gets in front of a judge.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

Email: capitolfax@aol.com



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