New day, new lawmakers, same Illinois pension fight

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— New day. New lawmakers. Same old pension-reform dispute.

Illinois legislators failed to deliver a solution Tuesday to a ballooning, $96 billion pension deficit. As a new General Assembly prepared to take the oath Wednesday, lawmakers said they would try again with fresh legislation and a larger Democratic majority, but there was no certainty a new line-up would lead to a deal to prevent the crisis from hurting the state’s economy.

After a weekend of revived talks that hinted at progress, the House failed to even vote on a proposed pension solution Tuesday night. The reasons are as varied as the geography of Illinois, from the Mississippi River hills of East Dubuque to the Ohio River lowlands of Old Shawneetown.

“It would be great if we had one thing we could focus on and get it corrected, but that’s not the way this works,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, the sponsor of the last, best House effort to close the funding gap with greater contributions from state employees and less-generous retirement benefits, among other provisions.

Lawmakers representing large numbers of state employees worry about cutting benefits. Democrats with ties to strong unions fear backlash. Republicans believe defined-benefit pensions should be dumped for 401(k)-style plans.

Nekritz’s legislation, however, had buy-in from House Republican Leader Tom Cross, of Oswego, the lawmaker Democrats have blamed since May for holding up a solution. Gov. Pat Quinn convinced powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan to allow consideration of a bill that excluded, for now, shifting any teacher-pension costs to local school districts, which Cross opposed.

Despite his efforts, the Democratic governor suffered the greatest, having set up the must-do Jan. 9 finish line but breaking the tape empty-handed. In a last-ditch effort that opponents called desperate, Quinn pulled out legislation creating an independent commission to make necessary pension changes — but even that failed to get a House roll call.

Whatever hope there was in the session’s final days initially came from a concession by Madigan. The speaker agreed last week to forgo a proposal shifting school districts’ pension costs to the state, which Republicans feared would lead to local property tax increases.

But the speaker, a master of generating votes for bills he supports, took no visibly public role after that. Nekritz said Madigan supported her effort to build consensus for her proposal, but would not answer specific questions about how he was lending a hand or whether she’d asked him for help.

Madigan has said for months that Republican votes, not just Democratic ones, were needed to pass reform.

“The bipartisan coalition that was needed to pass a pension reform bill didn’t come together. That’s been a continuing challenge over several years,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said. “We’ll continue to work on it.”

The prospects for the new Legislature to successfully deal with the issue were far from clear Wednesday, and some were warning about continued failure to do so.

“It’s scary going forward because the only other alternative is an additional tax increase, and everyone in the state should be worried about that,” said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont.

Not so fast, Democrats said. Nekritz and her allies claim progress and will introduce fresh legislation similar to their abandoned plan after being sworn in to new terms. Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said he will again offer a version of his proposal, which he says is the only constitutional idea in the building because it doesn’t take away promised benefits without offering recipients choices.

Quinn warned that missing his deadline means bond rating agencies will downgrade Illinois’ credit as early as Wednesday. The governor told lawmakers that without action, the state’s credit worthiness is in “dire jeopardy.”

“Public pension reform is absolutely necessary if Illinois is going to have sound financial footing once and for all,” he said.

Wednesday will be filled with pomp and patriotic bunting; lawmakers wearing corsages will take oaths, accept congratulatory hugs from parents, spouses and children, and snack on cookies and punch.

There will be little to remind anyone of the lame-duck session that began a week earlier with sky-high expectations of sending Quinn bills not only to reform pensions, but also to legalize gay marriage and put restrictions on assault weapons and their fast-feeding ammunition devices.

Gay marriage got a Senate committee OKs, as did gun control, but Democratic sponsors did not move those pieces of legislation to the Senate floor despite a Democratic majority.

Lawmakers produced a proposal that Quinn plans to sign allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, but nothing was heard of other measures that were in line for lame-duck consideration, including medical marijuana and expanded casino gambling.

The pension problem, Quinn noted, goes back decades. Years of inattention by lawmakers and governors to properly fund state-run pension accounts caused the situation. Without reducing costs, catching up means the state’s annual payment will continue to eat up money that would otherwise go for schools, health care and public safety.

Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who was Nekritz’s pension-plan partner and House colleague until he was sworn in early to his new job Monday, said they’re ready to keep talking — even if it means starting from scratch with newcomers and facing a new slate of issues.

“We’ll learn as we work with these new members what those issues are,” Biss said, “and we hope it will be easier.”


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