Nothing special about legislative session
Our legislators keep fiddling while the state's public pension systems burn.
Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to call Friday's special legislative session probably seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps a triumph of hope over experience.
But, to few people's great surprise, it proved to be a monumental flop.
The Senate adjourned about midafternoon Friday without taking action. The House debated a meaningless plan to eliminate pensions for future legislators but lacked the resolve to pass it. Then it adjourned.
So Illinois' five public pension plans remain in the same dire straits now that they were before. Their unfunded liability stands at $83 billion, a number expected to increase to $93 billion by next summer.
The fact that legislators did not take action does not mean they do not realize that action must be taken.
But there's a political problem with timing. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan wants to postpone the tough decisions he knows must be made until after the November election, the idea being that casting tough votes now might put some members of the Democratic caucus in political jeopardy.
The other problem is policy related, stemming from the disagreement between Madigan and Republican legislative leaders over a proposal to shift the state's cost for teachers' pensions to local school districts.
Quinn and Madigan favor the cost shift, one that is phased in over a period of years, while Republicans and some Democratic legislators from outside Cook County fear that such a move would force school districts to raise property taxes.
There are, however, areas of agreement that stripped of the cost-shift plan would reduce the state's pension costs. Voters almost certainly will be hearing more about them after the election.
Friday's failure must certainly have come as a disappointment to Quinn, who has been engaged in a futile effort to force legislative action. But Quinn couldn't have been too surprised, particularly after he was booed and jeered by union employees during an appearance at the Illinois State Fair.
That intimidating display of anger by traditionally Democratic voters surely put the fear of God into some of our more spineless legislators.
Prior to adjourning in May, the Illinois Senate passed a halfway measure aimed at reducing pension costs for state employees and state legislators, two of the four systems targeted for change. It was not the comprehensive reform that is needed, although it is a serious proposal.
But on Thursday, Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno announced that she no longer supported the proposal and would press along with House Republican Leader Tom Cross for major changes or none at all.
Radogno is correct that broad-based change is necessary. But state Sen. Bill Brady, the Bloomington Republican, spoke for many when he urged the House to approve the Senate bill.
Brady called the Senate bill a "half measure" but said under the circumstances, it's better than nothing.
"Something's got to be done. This is the only solution on the table. Rome's burning, and we need some incremental solution for this problem," he said, predicting that "if we pass this, it will lead to passage (of reform) in the other systems."
Another Republican, state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine, agreed, saying that Republicans should "take what you can get now and ... use it as a springboard to finishing the job on the other systems."
But Murphy's and Brady's appeals were ignored. Ultimately, House Democratic Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie summed up the problem when she said there was "not a consensus for comprehensive reform today."
Put the emphasis on the word today. Legislators know what must be done. They simply prefer to act when the political climate is more favorable, even though the state's pension problems will be worse.
As usual, their No. 1 priority is not the public interest but themselves.