Big spending cut just one of many
It's an ugly business when spendthrift legislators are forced to confront the error of their ways.
People all across the country have been clamoring for their public officials to act in a bipartisan fashion.
Well, Illinois residents got that in spades this past week when legislative Democrats and Republicans joined together to put an end to free health insurance premiums for 78,000 retired state employees.
The Illinois House voted 74-43 on Thursday to repeal this extremely generous perk, which costs taxpayers $800 million a year. On Friday, the state Senate followed suit, approving the measure 31-20
The legislative action was greeted with hosannas by Gov. Pat Quinn, who undoubtedly has felt lonely in his calls for spending cuts in major state programs.
The legislation was sponsored by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, and his proposal had been interpreted in some quarters as a threat designed to get various constituencies to the bargaining table and settle on a package of spending cuts.
But Madigan proved to be more serious than some people recognized. Either that or those who resisted his blandishments forgot that Madigan runs over those he cannot bend to his will.
Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who runs the House with an iron fist, indicated that eliminating the free health insurance is just the first of several planned steps. Also on the budget agenda are proposals to cut an estimated $2.7 billion in Medicaid costs and put the state's public pension systems, which are underfunded by $80-billion-plus, on a firmer financial footing.
"The prescription on the table is huge," Madigan said. "This is one small part of it. ... If we can't do this (eliminate free health insurance for retirees), what in the world are we going to be able to do?"
While private sector workers may be astounded to learn that state retirees received free health insurance, public sector retirees will be angry and disturbed at being required to pay for what they have been receiving free.
That's why local Democrat state Sen. Mike Frerichs of Champaign and Democratic state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson of Urbana voted no — along with area Republican state Reps. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, Adam Brown of Decatur, Jason Barickman of Champaign, and Bill Mitchell of Forsyth.
Obviously, they perceived a yes vote as too politically dangerous because thousands of their constituents are retired state employees.
Voting in favor of ending the perk were area state Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Shane Cultra of Onarga and state Reps. Dan Brady of Bloomington and Chad Hays of Catlin, all Republicans.
State Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, apparently was too terrified to even show up in Springfield. He sent word that he was attending a track meet.
What happened this past week is what Quinn has described as Illinois' "rendezvous with reality." The state is not just broke, but deeply in debt and facing the threat of downgrades in its bond ratings. Despite last year's huge income tax increase, there is not enough money to finance benefits many have come to take for granted.
Although last week's vote was bad news for state retirees, it might not be as bad as some fear. The state's Central Management Services Department is required under the legislation to determine how much retirees will pay in insurance premiums, with the highest paid pensioners paying the most and the lowest paying the least.
That also means, however, that the state won't really save the entire $800 million in current costs.
Planned cuts in Medicaid, of course, will affect low-income families and individuals. So-called pension reforms will focus on eliminating automatic cost-of-living increases and requiring greater contributions from public pension system enrollees, both of which are certain to cause more anger.
Quinn, Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, House Republican Leader Tom Cross and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno have defended their focus on these programs by arguing that unless cuts are made, Illinois will be unable to fund core state functions like education, road improvements and law enforcement. Also targeted for cuts are state facilities, including the state's super-maximum prison in Tamms.
There is no question that legislators are confronting difficult challenges, and there's no guarantee that the coalition that eliminated the free health care program will hold. But everyone knew the day eventually would come when the money would run out and the spending party would be called to an abrupt end.