By Jamey Dunn
A one-day special legislative session to address the state’s struggling pension systems produced plenty of finger pointing but no reforms.
A plan that would only have affected members of the General Assembly Retirement System failed to get the support needed to pass. Senate Bill 3168 would have forced members of the General Assembly pension system, which includes lawmakers and constitutional officers, to choose between keeping their 3 percent compounded-interest cost-of-living increases or hanging onto their state-subsidized retiree health care. The bill also would have eliminated pensions for any new members of the system. The House voted to adopt an amendment containing the language of the bill, which required only the majority of those lawmakers present, but supporters did not get the 60 “yes” votes needed to pass the bill. The measure was not called for a final vote.
No new pension reform proposals emerged from the Senate, which adjourned before the House began debating SB 3168. During the spring session, the Senate approved House Bill 1447, which would apply to members of the General Assembly and state workers. Supporters pitched that bill as the last resort of the day because no agreement could be reached on any other proposals. “The pensions committee has passed out three very comprehensive bills over the last two years. None of them have been able to pass in this chamber,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who served on a pension working group that tried to come up with legislation that would pass during the regular session. “We need to do something to demonstrate that the General Assembly can do something to take action on this issue. ... We do need to be taking this step because of what it says to the public about our willingness to take action.”
Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie agreed. “Where have those proposals gone? Nowhere. They’ve gone to the dustbin. Because there is not consensus for comprehensive pension reform today.” Currie argued that lawmakers could take a small first step by reducing their own benefits. “This at least begins reform right here at home.” Republican opponents said that the vote was just meant to give Democrats a way to claim that they had taken action on pension reform. “This is a bill that provides cover in a political campaign. It’s a political vote,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross.
The governor’s budget office estimates that the measure affecting lawmakers would save $111 million between its effective date next year and 2045. The total unfunded pension liability is estimated at $83 billion. Republicans argue that it might actually be more because they say the return on investment estimates for the systems are not realistic. Those opposed to the measure say that, when the savings are compared with the entire liability, it would make no real progress. “Frankly, I would be hard-pressed to look voters in the face and explain why I voted for this bill,” said Rep. Dwight Kay, a Glen Carbon Democrat.
“In the context of the overall problem, I think we all agree that this does absolutely nothing,” Cross said. He and many of his fellow Republicans called on Gov. Pat Quinn to keep lawmakers in special session until a pension plan passes. “We will stay here for as long as it takes.” Cross said. “But it needs to be done in a very very comprehensive manner. This doesn’t even come close.”
Quinn has other ideas.
“I was disappointed with the legislature today,” Quinn said after both chambers adjourned. He said that he does not plan to call lawmakers back for a special session in the immediate future. Instead, Quinn said he plans to launch a “grassroots” campaign to reach out to voters and business groups and urge them to put pressure on lawmakers. “I think there’s a lot of explaining to do to the voters and taxpayers back home if members of the Illinois House of Representatives are voting now on something as fundamental as reforming their own public pension system,” Quinn said. “It’s pretty clear to me that we’re not going to continue to engage with Republican leaders who are not sincere about voting for public pensions reform. We’re not going to let them just deny and delay. I think it’s time to get the people involved.” Quinn said that Republican legislative leaders rejected every proposal he pitched to them this morning.
But Republican leaders say that it is Democrats who are either not genuinely interested in passing reform or bungling the job. “You’ve got two Democrat[ic legislative] leaders who don’t want to really do it and a governor that really doesn’t know how to do it and so when you’ve got those two things going on, it’s pretty difficult to get to the goal line.”
Quinn has always been a fan of grassroots movements, and the idea harks back to his time as a political organizer and gadfly before he served as state treasurer, lieutenant governor and governor. He has had success, such as a movement that culminated in “the cutback amendment,” which reduced the number of lawmakers in the House. However, he has not had much luck with rallying people to influence the legislature since he has taken office as governor. He appealed to citizens when he opposed smart-grid legislation that he said would result in unfair electric-rate increases for consumers. Quinn launched a website for public comment and encouraged people to contact their lawmakers, but legislators voted to override his veto of the bill. When asked how this campaign would be different than that one, Quinn just said, “You’ll see.” A Quinn spokesperson said the governor plans to reveal more details about his campaign next week.