Editorial: 'The dog ate my homework'
This and other tired excuses for idling on pensions
Thursday, August 02, 2012
Servers at a recent luncheon had barely cleared the dessert plates when Illinois lawmakers began questioning Gov.Pat Quinn'scall for a special session.
Moments after Quinn announced during a noon speech he would reconvene the General Assembly, two local lawmakers told ABC7 Chicago News it wasn't a good idea. Pension reform, they said, needed more time and study. They couldn't possibly be expected to vote on major changes during a one-day session.
"Do I have my doubts? Without question. Like anything, it's a process," said Sen. Donne Trotter, Democrat of Chicago. "It didn't happen overnight. It's not going to be corrected overnight."
Added state Rep. Lou Lang, Democrat of Skokie: "I just don't think in a couple of hours on a Friday in the middle of August we're going to be able to accomplish the governor's goal."
Voters: Expect to hear a lot of that in the coming weeks. It's called stalling. Stall — just long enough to get past Nov. 6. Or January. Or next spring.
Trotter rightly pointed out it took decades for Illinois' unfunded pension liability to burgeon to the nation's worst. That doesn't mean lawmakers need a commensurate amount of time to fix it.
Consider a few indisputable facts: Two governor-appointed task forces studied the pension problem already. Last summer, House Speaker Michael Madigan convened no less than a dozen meetings between unions and state leaders to talk pensions. Quinn administration official Jerry Stermer launched separate negotiations that began in January.
"It isn't like this is new information," Quinn told WGN-TV News. "We've been analyzing, studying, negotiating, evaluating — you name it — really for two months since they left Springfield."
Two months? Try two years, conservatively. Even Gov. Rod Blagojevich convened a pension task force that made recommendations in 2004. Time's up.
Trotter and Lang know how deep the hole is. They realize the $83 billion underfunding of the state's five pension systems is actually a lowball estimate. They know the state's credit rating teeters on junk status.
If lawmakers think they need more information, perhaps they should thumb through the final report of Quinn's Pension Modernization Task Force, a 3-year-old, 229-page grenade that details Illinois' dire financial status. If that's not enough, they can review the 2006 report from the Civic Committee, which was updated in 2009 because nothing had been done to fix the problem, or the Civic Federation's 2010 report that warned of the state's fiscal mess.
Still unclear? Try the Illinois Policy Institute's "$203 Billion and Counting" report, which totaled the amount taxpayers owe for employee benefits at the state and local levels.
The real problem isn't lack of information or lack of time.
It's lack of will from incumbents on both sides of the aisle. The clock is ticking toward November, and both parties hope their excuse for not passing pension reform will be the one you buy.
Voters expect such minimal activity from Springfield, they accept the lame explanations. Lawmakers' re-election prospects get folded into serious policy debates without question. Because most lawmakers face re-election every other year, voters and out-of-touch political observers are accustomed to, and condone, a General Assembly that powers on and off based on the election cycle. Tough votes are confined to a small window every other year during lame duck session days.
It's a racket. It doesn't have to be that way.
When a pension reform bill died in May last year, lawmakers said they would address it during the November veto session. When the fall session adjourned without reform, legislative leaders said they would take action in the spring — but not until after the March primary election.
When the House and Senate gaveled out May 31 this year, again, without a major pension overhaul, Quinn said he would work toward a solution in the coming weeks.
Now it's August, and once again taxpayers are being told to wait until November, after the general election. Or better yet, January.
In the meantime, the people who rely on government the most — the poor, the sick and the disabled — are seeing their services cut. The state owes so much to its pensions, there's no money left. By Quinn's estimate, the pension deficit climbs by $12.6 million per day.
It shouldn't take a magic wand to pass a pension bill.
It takes guts. It takes risk. It takes elected officials willing to do what is best for the state, not what will "sell" in their particular districts. Pension reform in the state with the nation's worst credit rating should not be dependent on a campaign-centric roll call vote. Some things — the financial solvency of Illinois, for example — should rise above.
Quinn and legislative leaders face an Aug. 17 deadline to work toward a meaningful pension reform bill. In writing. With detail. Ready to call for a vote when lawmakers convene.
Taxpayers deserve no less.