Jim Dey: Nervous legislators would prefer to skip pension issue
Politics and government policy go hand in hand, and when the policy is bad, the politics often are worse.
So forgive our state legislators for their reluctance to address the state's pension problems. They may not be profiles in courage, but they are, at least as judged in the jungle of politics, profiles in common sense.
That's why another week has passed in Springfield without action on the $100 billion underfunding problem that afflicts the state's public pension systems. Legislators met this week in their annual fall veto session without taking action. They'll return to Springfield Nov. 7-9, and the prospects for action then are not great either.
Neither two area legislators nor Gov. Pat Quinn's budget spokesman overflowed with confidence about having a vote on a legislative fix for pensions.
"It's only safe to bet on inaction," said Abdon Pallasch, a former statehouse reporter who works for Quinn on budget issues.
He was willing to go so far as to suggest "there is a possibility" something might pass.
State Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, was similarly reluctant to predict action.
"I don't have a crystal ball on that," he said.
State Rep. Chad Hays, a Catlin Republican, reminded that "big things have happened on short notice before in Springfield" but said a pension bill "seems to be unlikely."
"I think the likelihood (of action) is going to be in the spring," he said.
It's well known to the public and ever better known among legislators that the state's pension problem grows worse day by day. It wasn't all that long ago that the current $100 billion underfunding problem was $50 billion.
Action then, theoretically, could have saved pain now. But that depends on what kind of pain we're talking about.
Members of the Illinois House and Senate are terrified of the political fallout of casting an unpopular pension vote. That's why any fix that requires economic sacrifices by current pension system members and state retirees will require a "structured roll call" to pass.
What's that? It's somewhat akin to a conspiracy by members of both parties for each side to put just enough yes votes on an unpopular bill to pass it. That way, legislators from both parties who might be endangered by voting yes can vote no and then, with great sadness, tell unhappy constituents that they did all they could to defeat whatever bill was passed.
The problem Democratic and Republican party leaders are having is putting together a package on which they can agree and then pass.
After failing earlier this year to pass a pension bill, legislative leaders put together a special eight-member panel (four Democrats and four Republicans) to work out a deal. So far, there's no deal.
The outlines of an agreement are in place, the most important feature of which is a reduction in the annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases government retirees receive.
The new plan calls for cutting the annual 3 percent increase to one-half of the annual increase in the cost of living, the lowest of which would be a 1 percent annual increase and the highest 4 percent. Negotiators are betting, not necessarily wisely, on continued low inflation, hoping that doing away with annual 3 percent hikes will dramatically slow the increases in payments flowing out of the pension systems.
Another key aspect of the proposal is that those who pay into the system would pay 1 percent less than they do now.
That reduced payment is perceived as a necessary ingredient to allow state lawyers to argue that the proposed package does not violate a clause in the Illinois Constitution that prohibits any diminution in pensioners' benefits.
The existence of that clause, which has not been tested in the courts, has undermined a solution to the pension problem. Without legal guidelines, legislators have been left to speculate about what constitutes a diminution of benefits.
It certainly means that if a retiree receives $100 a month in January he could receive no less than $100 in February. But are scheduled increases — say a 3 percent COLA in January 2014 — also protected from reduction? Until that question is answered, a legislative fix on the pension issue will be mired in confusion.
The conference committee is reported to be split on the package between Democrats (for) and Republicans (against). GOP members reportedly feel the plan, as drafted, won't save enough money to fix the problem.
Quinn spokesman Pallasch said negotiations continue in an effort to win bipartisan support. Then again, Rose said there are indications that separate Democratic legislators — state Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago and state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook — may propose their own individual plans.
The political calendar also has complicated circumstances.
Politicians always are looking for an excuse not to take action. They range from "we can't do that because next year is an election year" to "we can't do that because this year is an election year."
That pretty much wipes out all the years as hospitable times for casting controversial votes.
One current excuse is that it would be unwise to vote Nov. 7-9 because December is the filing period for next year's election. Legislators reason that it would be safer to wait until after the filing deadline to avoid drawing a primary or general election opponent.
But there also is a good reason for delaying action.
If legislators vote in the November veto session on a pension bill, it will require a three-fifths majority to pass and not take effect until July 1, 2014. If they wait until after Jan. 1 to act, the bill will only take a majority vote to pass and could take effect immediately. An additional benefit is that it's easier to put together a structured roll call with a majority vote requirement than an extraordinary majority requirement.
More legislators would be free to vote no, even though they wish the bill to pass.
Considering all these factors — the policy and the political fallout — the pension issue represents a negative daily double.
Legislators want to be liked, and they like to help people. It's because of that they handed out overly generous pension benefits and approved one early retirement program after another. It's why they spent money that should have gone to pensions on other programs.
Now it's time to pay the piper, and the cost will be so high many people will be unhappy and some people will boil with rage.
The average legislator will run screaming from the room to avoid that scenario. But running room is getting increasingly hard to find as Illinois' pension doomsday clock ticks on.
Correction: In last week's column, I incorrectly reported that state Sen. Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, cast a yes vote for 2012 legislation that allows hospitals to avoid property taxes if they provide a sufficient amount of charity care. Although Frerichs cast a yes vote for an earlier and different version of the bill, he cast a no vote on the final version.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.