Legislators back to grind today after swearing-in parties

SPRINGFIELD — On Wednesday, the 177 newly elected members of the Illinois General Assembly celebrated their inauguration with family and friends.

Today, they return to work with a state government facing a budget shortfall, continuing spending pressures, billions of dollars in unpaid bills and the nation's largest pension liability.

"There are spending cuts coming, regardless of who wants to acknowledge that and who doesn't want to, and regardless of any new ideas about tax increases," said Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. "There is not enough tax money in Illinoisans' pockets to pay for the rate at which we spend money, and that's got to stop."

Righter, a veteran of 15 years in the Legislature, was less optimistic than other area state senators that the new Legislature would be able to solve the vexing pension problem and still maintain or cut spending, particularly since Democrats now have a historically overwhelming 40-19 advantage in the Senate.

"This group for 10 years — on the big issues, the mammoth fiscal issues — has failed repeatedly. I just don't have any confidence," Righter said. "Given a choice between a pension reform like they're talking out here and nothing at all, I'll take nothing at all. Here's why: It leaves incredible pressure on them to make the full pension payment. Even these guys have been pressured into making the full pension payment because of the unfunded liability. I'd rather have that money go there than have it sprayed all over other parts of the state budget."

Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, a 20-year legislative veteran and the GOP candidate for governor three years ago, also expressed pessimism.

Based on the failure of pension negotiations earlier this week, he said, "I don't see any progress on the governor's ability to do anything. I do think that the rank-and-file members who are dependent on those pension systems, they know that this system can't be sustained without reforms. They're willing to discuss reforms."

But he faulted Gov. Pat Quinn for the failed bargaining.

"When you are sticking a needle in the eye of the state's biggest union on a contract negotiation, and trying to negotiate this, you see the kind of results this governor gets," he said.

Further, Brady said the pension and Medicaid spending issues have to be solved or the state budget will be in severe difficulty.

"If they don't force the taming of the Medicaid monster, there won't be money for the University of Illinois, for Illinois State, for roads and bridges and other things. Eventually our vendors will pack up and leave," he said.

Three newer, younger senators were more optimistic.

"I think (pension reform) will be done in the next month or two because I anticipate there will be some added pressure on the state's bond rating if we don't do anything," said Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign. "Even the most fervent state employees realize that something has to be done to stabilize the system and make sure we have money for other important parts of state government. More and more of my constituents have told me that they're willing to be part of the solution; they just don't want to be the entire solution. They're willing to share in the pain, but not to bear the entire burden."

Newly sworn in Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said pensions are "the macro-level issue. It impacts everything else. If you don't fix it, now you're back to cutting budgets."

He urged legislative leaders to open up discussion of the pension issue.

"It's got to be done cooperatively. The only reason it didn't happen in the last General Assembly is, unlike Medicaid reform which was real and significant, and unlike the budget cuts, which were real and significant, those two processes were done openly and cooperatively. No one went away feeling that they had gotten 100 percent of what they wanted, but they felt as if they had been heard. Contrast that with pensions. It's largely been negotiated behind closed doors. I really do think that was part of the reason it didn't make it across the finish line."

Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, predicted lawmakers would begin to work seriously on the pension issue once they see how it impacts next year's budget. Pension costs are projected to take another $1 billion from the budget in fiscal year 2014.

"My guess is that some pension proposals will see a vote based on the pressures created by the budget," he said. "As we start to see what the budget looks like and realize that there is another billion dollars of growth in pension obligations, that pressure will cause the General Assembly to vote on some measures to alter the pension systems.

"Whether it is resolved, I don't know. Resolved is a strong word. I think we could take meaningful steps, but I would be surprised if we were able to sit back a year from now and say, 'It's been solved.' But we've got to manage and control that expense because it is forcing us to face the tough question of cuts to services or increases in taxes."

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