The old Pat Quinn — the demagogue from days of yore — has emerged from the shadows to call for action on public pensions in a way our legislators will understand.
The pension dance between Gov. Pat Quinn and members of the General Assembly has been fascinating to watch, primarily because each seems determined to step on the toes of the other.
Legislators take pleasure in demeaning Quinn and ridiculing his pleas for them to take action on Illinois' public pensions. They compete with each other to see who can make the most insulting comments about him, like this doozy from state Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat.
"The pension crisis will get dealt with. It won't be by some arbitrary date set by an irrelevant governor," said Bradley, dismissing the July 9 deadline Quinn had set for legislative action.,
But two can play that game, and Quinn Wednesday shifted tactics, no longer appealing to legislators' selflessness but instead to their selfishness.
The governor announced that he exercised his line-item veto authority to eliminate the budget for legislative salaries. That's hitting House and Senate members in their most beloved spot — their wallets.
Senate President John Cullerton quickly denounced Quinn for "grandstanding."
"The governor's actions today are as unproductive as yesterday's arbitrary deadline. Responsible leaders know that unworkable demands will only delay progress," he said.
But not everyone was upset by what Quinn did, including one particularly important member of the Illinois House of Representatives.
"I am hopeful (Quinn's) strategy works," said House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has been at odds with Cullerton over the solution to the pension issue.
Cullerton's description of Quinn's action is accurate. He is grandstanding. That's one of the things Quinn does best. He built his public career on grandstanding. But this grandstanding serves the useful purpose of turning up the financial heat on legislators who have been ignoring the pension problem for years.
There are some questions about Quinn's action. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said she'll have to check with her lawyer before deciding what to do. But the governor possesses line-item veto authority, and he's free to zero out anything in the budget that doesn't suit him.
The Legislature can override that veto, but that requires a vote. If Speaker Madigan sincerely wants Quinn's strategy to work, he might not be interested in calling for a vote.
But this issue is more about public relations than legislative machinery. Most Illinoisans will applaud the idea of legislators going without their pay, and Quinn knows it.
But note that Quinn budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch said legislators were paid July 1 and are not scheduled to be paid again until Aug. 1.
"They could moot (the issue) by just passing pension reform," he said. "Nobody needs to miss a single paycheck."
That, of course, will require legislators to make tough decisions that will anger various political constituencies. It won't be pleasant, but maintaining the status quo is simply not a viable option. The state's five public pension systems are underfunded by roughly $97 billion. Legislators must move on this issue and they must move with dispatch, regardless of their motivation.