A not-so-special committee
Legislators met again last week and failed again to come up with a solution to state pension woes.
Last week's special legislative session in Springfield was anything but special, as members of the House and Senate voted not to take substantive action on Illinois' disastrous public pension woes, but instead to create another committee to study the issue.
It's been widely reported that the pensions' underfunding increases by $17 million a day. So by the time legislators return July 9 total under-funding will have increased by another $340 million. For those especially galled by the Legislature's inaction, under-funding will increase by $669 million since the General Assembly adjourned May 31 without taking action on pensions.
Does the phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" seem apt here?
Our legislators' paralysis is understandable, but not for the reasons many of them would cite. Current and past state leaders have been so irresponsible for so long in handling state finances that they have created a financial problem that requires a draconian solution. Or, to put it another way, the party was a blast but the hangover is a bummer.
Nonetheless, Gov. Pat Quinn deserves credit for keeping a stiff upper lip. He's begged, pleaded, cajoled and threatened legislators only to be accused of not showing leadership on an issue legislators simply refuse to address. Still, he managed to put the Legislature's decision to create a 10-member special House and Senate conference committee (six Democrats and four Republicans) in a positive light.
He called the special committee a "mechanism to get the job done."
"I am hopeful that the leaders of the Legislature have realized that forging a compromise and an agreement is absolutely imperative for the people of Illinois," Quinn said.
Most people who have been paying attention had hoped that legislators would have reached that obvious conclusion a long time ago, perhaps when the total pension underfunding was one-third or one-half what it is now.
But they hemmed and hawed, wrung their hands, vacillated, temporized, dawdled and dozed, repeatedly kicking the can down the road while waiting for someone else to show a profile in courage.
The problem they face is relatively simple to understand — there is not enough money to go around. Properly funding pensions and core state functions like education and roads is not an option. So state officials have decided they must make changes in the pension systems that will require system members to pay more and get less. To past and present public employees, this represents a gross abuse of trust. It's also an extension of the long-running double-cross that began when past governors and legislators skipped required payments to the pension systems because they preferred to spend the money elsewhere.
Naturally, members of the public pension systems are hopping mad, and they've threatened political recriminations that terrify current legislators.
Members of the newly formed conference committee will have to navigate that political minefield as they consider rival plans submitted by Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Michael Madigan and various alternatives offered by other major players including the presidents of Illinois' public universities.
But it's not just the union members who will be watching. So will private citizens, most of whom don't have the generous pensions promised to public employees, as well as advocates for various interest groups that fear losing their share of state appropriations to fund the pensions.
The easiest solution for the political powers-that-be would be another gigantic state income tax increase. But legislators raised state personal and corporate income taxes in 2011 while refusing to reduce spending, and the tax hike hasn't improved the state's overall financial picture.
Considered in that context, creation of a new committee doesn't really offer too much hope for change. What's needed is the political resolve to face the ugly financial realities and make the scream-inducing decisions necessary to get Illinois back on the road to improved financial health.