Pension bill foes have few options
Merits of the legislation aside, proponents of the controversial pension legislation did a masterful job of insulating themselves from political retribution.
Over the decades of craven political posturing in Springfield, there have been many examples of legislators dodging responsibility for unpopular legislation.
But last week's pension vote by members of the Illinois House and Senate has to rank at the top in terms of legislators putting their fingers to the wind and casting a safe vote or even no vote at all.
Perhaps the best example was provided by Peoria Democratic state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth. As one of House Speaker Michael Madigan's foot soldiers, Gordon-Booth expressed support for action on pensions in May but voted "present" on Tuesday. With the legislation passing the House by a 62-53 margin (it needed 60 votes to pass), Gordon-Booth took a powder on one of the most controversial issues to face legislators in years.
It was an obvious act of political cowardice, but Gordon-Booth characterized it as a profile in courage. She said she cast a "protest vote" to express her objection to not having the opportunity to vote on a pension bill that passed the Illinois Senate but was opposed by Madigan.
Gordon-Booth said she has been "pretty vocal" about the need for a legislative pension fix and "wouldn't want to send a signal to people that we don't need pension reform." Got that? She's both for it and against it, but refused to cast a vote either way.
She wasn't the only one ducking the issue. State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a Chicago Democrat, also voted present. Two other Democratic members of the Senate — James Clayborne Jr. of Belleville and Donne Trotter of Chicago — did not vote at all. (The bill received the minimum 30 votes required in the Senate.)
And they weren't the only ones hedging their bets.
While Gov. Pat Quinn embraced the legislation that outraged public union leaders, their members and retirees, three of the four Republican gubernatorial candidates opposed the legislation aimed at eliminating the public pensions' $100 billion shortfall by cutting benefits and increasing revenues to the system.
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford said he has concerns about the bill's constitutionality while state Sen. Kirk Dillard cited multiple objections that included a lack of time to study the legislation and concerns about its legality. Chicago Republican businessman Bruce Rauner said he opposed the legislation because it's simply inadequate to fix the problem. Rauner wants to get Illinois out of the public pension business, paying public employees what they have earned so far but moving them into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan going forward.
Of the GOP gubernatorial candidates, only state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, striking a Churchillian pose as a leader willing to make tough decisions, supported the pension bill.
Locally, all area legislators — Republicans and Democrats — were allowed to vote in opposition. Even if they privately favored the legislation, they did not dare offend their public employee constituencies.
So what are angry voters to do? On a statewide basis, they can base votes in the governor's race on the pension issue.
But legislators, mostly, have placed themselves beyond reach.
The vote was structured so Republican and Democrats legislators from safe districts could vote yes, allowing Republicans and Democrats more subject to electoral challenge to vote no. It also was held Dec. 2, the day after the candidate filing period expired, so that it would be too late to provoke a primary election challenge.
The only viable option for opponents of the legislation is the impending court challenge testing whether the Illinois Constitution's pension protection provision bars the state from modifying pension benefits not yet earned. If the Illinois Supreme Court rules that it does, the state's pension crisis once again will dominate the news.
Gov. Pat Quinn on Thursday signed the pension bill into law. He called it a "serious solution to the most dire fiscal challenge of our time" while noting that there will be no reductions in current retirees' pension checks.
Even if the bill survives a court challenge, there remains a serious question about whether it will have the intended effect. But there's little doubt that most, if not all, of our legislators will emerge unscathed from the acrimonious pension debate.
If the subject comes up, those who voted yes will pat themselves on the back for their courage. Those who voted no will tell angry constituents that they did everything they could to keep the bill from passing.
Hardly anyone will take the aggressive stance embraced by Madigan, who was happy to let everyone know that he remains in charge of state government.
"This bill would not have passed without me," he was quoted as saying in a Quinn press release.
The conductor was taking his bows for orchestrating the vote, and why not? Once again, he wrapped up a dirty job while leaving angry voters few, if any, elected officials to punish.