Is the governor's call to address state pension problems falling on deaf ears?
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn surprised a lot of people this week when he called for an Aug. 17 special legislative session to address the state's woefully underfunded public pension systems.
He even topped off his summons with an extra dose of hot rhetoric to emphasize the importance of legislative action.
"We can thread this needle. This is a crying need of our state. We must act," Quinn declared.
Unfortunately, the response from those who matter most to Quinn's call — state legislative leaders — was underwhelming.
A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, who was out of state, offered no comment. Democratic Senate President John Cullerton suggested the special legislative session would be a waste of money. Republican House and Senate leaders issued a statement that lauded Quinn's call but pointedly expressed no interest in accommodating Democratic proposals.
The Chicago Sun-Times summarized that lack of enthusiasm with a headline that stated, "Going nowhere."
Quinn has been trying to lead on this issue, but most legislators show no interest in following. Unfortunately, the governor has neither the influence nor the proposal to change that political dynamic.
Illinois' public pensions are underfunded by roughly $83 billion, a sum that is growing by an estimated $12.6 million each day. But eliminating that shortfall will require action sure to alienate some voters — most obviously, public employee union members — in this election year.
That's why most political observers expect the Illinois House and Senate to wait until after the November election before trying to resolve this unavoidable problem.
The state has no choice but to act. But when is a matter of some speculation. Speaker Madigan, a master political tactician, apparently would prefer to wait until after the election to allow members of his caucus to escape the voters' wrath.
Politics aside, however, the biggest roadblock to a legislative solution is the lack of a plan acceptable to legislators from both parties.
Before adjourning in May, members of the Senate passed a modest pension reform bill that would affect legislators and employees in the state's executive branch. A more ambitious bill that would have included public school teachers and university employees stalled in the House after Madigan insisted that the pension costs for teachers be shifted from the state to local school districts.
Representatives of the governor's office and legislative leaders have continued to meet since then, but no agreement appears to be close.
Further complicating the issue is the requirement that legislation be passed by a three-fifths, not a simple, majority. That higher hurdle kicked in after the May 31 legislative deadline for action passed.
From the outside, it looks like a continued stalemate on pensions.
That's the last thing Quinn wants. But the ball is in legislators' court, and they show no interest in playing.