Quinn flexes his muscles
Gov. Pat Quinn is using his power as the state's chief executive to force legislators to return to Springfield to address the pension issue. Unfortunately, he lacks the power to make them act.
Frustrated by the state's failure to take action on its public pension woes, Gov. Pat Quinn has scheduled a special legislative session for June 19.
As things stand now, Quinn's decision to do so looks like a triumph of hope over experience. Last week, Quinn wasn't able to persuade House Speaker Michael Madigan to attend a meeting with him and Senate President John Cullerton. Despite repeated phone calls, Quinn wasn't even able to speak to Madigan about attending the meeting.
A Madigan spokesman later stated that the all-powerful Chicago Democrat "wasn't available," suggesting that Madigan was off in parts unknown. But a Chicago television crew tracked down the elusive Madigan, first at his home and then at his legislative office, only to see Madigan twice skitter away, like a rat running down a back alley, rather than answer questions.
That kind of cat-and-rat approach to public policy would be mildly amusing if the issues involved were not so serious. Illinois' public pensions are underfunded by roughly $100 billion and that number is increasing by an additional $17 million per day. Still, legislators remain paralyzed; they adjourned May 31 with the House and Senate each embracing different plans on how to address this problem.
Unless Quinn, Cullerton and Madigan come together on an agreement between today and June 19, the session, like previous special sessions under Quinn and predecessor Rod Blagojevich, could be a bust. That's why House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie called Quinn's decision "a risky play."
"I'd suggest he seriously consider the drawing board before he invites us back to Springfield," she said.
It's too late for that. Quinn has made his decision, and it's complicated by the fact that he'll now need a three-fifths vote to pass legislation that would immediately take effect. A bill passed by a simple majority would not become law until July 1, 2014.
The problem during the legislative session is that many members of the House and Senate are terrified of the potential political blow-back that could be caused by passing legislation requiring pension system members and retirees to pay more and/or get less.
So how likely is it that those same legislators will pass a pension bill now that even more votes — a three-fifths majority — will be needed in the special session? It's not likely at all, unless Madigan and Cullerton as well as the leaders of minority Republicans can work out a compromise and whip their troops into line.
The situation reinforces the old cliche that it's not appetizing to watch sausage or legislation being made. Unfortunately, the current situation is even uglier.
Illinois is effectively bankrupt and deeply in debt. Those huge problems, however, pale in comparison to the need to prevent the collapse of the state's tottering public pension systems.
That's why it's difficult to fault Quinn for trying once again to forge an agreement with legislators. Unfortunately, that requires legislators to forge an agreement among themselves, and, at least to date and for a variety of reasons, that has proved impossible.
But Quinn's hope apparently springs eternal. Quinn finally reached Madigan on Friday; perhaps Quinn, Cullerton and Madigan can get something done in the next 10 days.