CHAMPAIGN — State Treasurer Dan Rutherford said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the state's financial condition is improving but warned that Gov. Pat Quinn must push harder for a reduction in Illinois' huge public pension liability.
The Republican treasurer from Livingston County, speaking at the Champaign Public Library on Monday, said Quinn must bring the legislative leaders together and negotiate an agreement to cut the state's pension obligations, pegged at upward of $85 billion. The Legislature adjourned in May without acting on the pension issue, but with a warning from the governor that action couldn't wait much longer.
"Overall I'm concerned that the (credit) rating companies have made it abundantly clear that a concern for them is a resolution to the state public pensions," said Rutherford. "I do not feel comfortable that we have not proceeded with resolution. Yes, it's hard. This not an easy issue. It's politically unpopular for some, I know. But I have embraced Governor Quinn's effort. I have said I will support his effort to get it done. But I am sorry to say that we have passed the Fourth of July and we still don't have a resolution."
Rutherford said it's up to Quinn to move the negotiations forward.
"I don't know that you lay fault, but the fact is that there's only one governor," the treasurer said. "If I was king of the forest, I would be meeting with the legislative leaders, bringing them to the table and working through where we can bring resolution to this."
It may be a case, Rutherford said, where the governor negotiates other issues besides pensions. Tie other issues with the proposal to shift teacher pension costs from the state to local school districts, he suggested.
"Maybe what you do is put the unfunded mandates on the table as a part of negotiations. You say that maybe we need to shift part of this cost to the employer, but in the same vein where are we with unfunded state mandates that our schools downstate have issues with? Or, where are we on the distribution of school transportation funds? My point is, you put these things that are of concern and negotiate an entire package, negotiate an entire contract as opposed to just one piece of it."
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said "the treasurer must be out of the loop. I think everyone would agree that no one has been arguing more forcefully for pension reform than the governor."
Quinn "can't get this done alone. We need the members of the Legislature to step up too," Anderson said. "But we're going to get this done."
She said Quinn plans to again meet with the legislative leaders on the pension issue later in July.
Rutherford, meanwhile, said that overall he was pleased with the budget adopted by the Legislature for the fiscal year that began July 1.
"I feel better that the budget that was passed by the General Assembly had less spending than what the governor requested. I think that's good," he said.
But Rutherford said that Quinn "did some reduction vetoes that I don't agree with," specifically citing the governor's plan to close state prisons at Dwight and Tamms.
"He cut those line items to spend it someplace else and I don't feel good about that," Rutherford said, citing an Associated Press story about recent episodes of violence in Illinois' overcrowded prison system.
"I think that shows that my concern about closing those two prisons, maximum security Tamms and maximum female Dwight, is not a good move. I think there are problems there, I don't feel good about that."
He renewed his call for more long-range planning within the correctional system.
"I believe that what we need is strategic planning, long-term strategic planning, just like you do for the Department of Transportation," Rutherford said. "I said that when Blagojevich tried to close prisons, and when Governor Quinn first said he was going to close these prisons. Keep in mind that he made these prison-closing announcements within a five- or six-month period. That is not strategic planning for fixed, multi-hundred-million-dollar assets. You don't just say that you're going to do this in six months."