Special session ends with no pension action


SPRINGFIELD -- In the end, Illinois lawmakers couldn’t agree to change even one pension system – their own – let alone four or all five state pension systems.

Friday’s special legislative session ended the way it began, with no agreement and no signal to bond rating agencies that Illinois state government is prepared to start dealing with its $83 billion-plus pension debt.

Republicans blamed Democrats for blocking comprehensive pension reform. Gov. Pat Quinn said it was the Republicans who actually stood in the way of change and said the next step will be a grassroots effort to force lawmakers to tackle pension reform. Details will be announced in coming days, he said.

Quinn did not say he would call lawmakers into additional special sessions.

The Illinois House took an initial vote to change pensions for state lawmakers and eliminate the pension program altogether for future lawmakers. The preliminary tally showed the measure failing, however, and the House adjourned without taking a final vote.

The Senate never took up pension reform at all.

Political exercise

“Today, unfortunately, seemed to be nothing more than a political exercise,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, after the House adjourned.

“Certainly the exercise today was a huge disappointment,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont. “It was a farce. It was intended from the get-go to be something to provide political cover.”

Quinn’s take was different.

“I think what we saw today is the Republican leaders sabotage each and every effort to reform the public pension systems,” Quinn said.

Quinn and the four legislative leaders met Friday morning to discuss pension reform proposals. Quinn said he asked the leaders to adopt a bill that would have applied to pensions for state employees, lawmakers, downstate teachers and university workers. The changes essentially would require members of those pension systems to choose between continuing to receive a 3 percent compounded increase in their pension benefits each year or continuing to have access to state health insurance after retirement.

However, the bill also would have shifted costs for downstate teachers away from the state and onto local school districts. Republicans say that approach will lead to increases in school property taxes.

Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, have been equally insistent that the cost shift must occur.

GOP rejects alternatives

With no agreement on that plan, Quinn said he then urged approval of a bill making changes only to pensions for state employees and lawmakers. However, the Republicans said that bill didn’t go far enough. Even Radogno, who voted for the bill in the Senate in May, said she no longer supports it.

“We have a goal line that keeps moving,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook. “There have been a number of proposals that have come out, but I feel like every time we get close, someone says, ‘Oh, it’s not right.’”

That left the attempt to change only the pension system covering lawmakers, even though it is by far the smallest of the five state systems and the projected savings would have been miniscule.

“This is a fifth of the loaf,” said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. “I would argue this is a very important first step.”

But others argued the bill was nothing more than an attempt to give lawmakers political cover.

“This is not one fifth of a loaf,” said Rep. Timothy Schmitz, R-Batavia. “It is barely a crumb.”

Other Republicans said Democrats were merely trying to get a vote to use against the GOP in the upcoming election. Still, most Republicans voted against the legislative pension proposal.

“If they want to throw out an email against me, they can do that,” said Rep. Jim Watson, R-Jacksonville, who voted against the bill. “If we are going to have real pension reform, we need to have it for everybody.”

Rep. Wayne Rosenthal, R-Morrisonville, who also voted no, said the bill would serve as a model for changing state employee pensions, which he opposes.

Quinn said he’s not giving up on pension reform, but he’s given up dealing with Republicans.

“We’re not going to continue to engage with Republican leaders who are not sincere about voting for public pension reform,” Quinn said. “I intend in the next few days to activate a grassroots strategy in Illinois that lets the everyday people have an opportunity to have their say on this very important issue.”

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.