Another Madigan shenanigan

You want an amendment? Here's a freebie ...

Monday, April 16, 2012

There are the state of Illinois pension problems — created by politicians, terrifying in scope, and increasingly lethal to school funding, health care and other spending needs.

Then there is House Speaker Michael Madigan's pension problem — citizens growing smarter every day about what Springfield has done to them:

Many of this state's taxpayers have caught on to the crude barter system that long lurked in the shadows: In return for reliable campaign support, Illinois politicians gave public employee unions hugely unaffordable pension and retiree health care benefits. Because those obligations didn't have to be funded immediately, the politicians could divert money to other purposes. They also figured they'd be gone when the dreadful costs of their giveaways erupted.

Thus did the state of Illinois become a massive retirement system that, during work hours, delivers services.

This barter system, then, helped the pols and the unions at the expense of taxpayers and their priorities. Now many of those taxpayers are up in arms — which makes incumbents nervous during an election cycle. Some legislators have confided to us that their constituents are furious about taxpayers' nearly $200 billion in unfunded pension obligations and other state debts. Last year's 67 percent hike in the personal income tax rate, with virtually every penny of that revenue bound for the sinking pension system, makes those constituents even more furious. Read our incoming correspondence for a month and you might be surprised at how many Illinoisans comprehend that the tax increase is an exclusively Democratic production.

So Madigan understandably wants to be perceived as protecting the pension system — if only he can protect his House Democrats from that rising voter fury. Last week he proposed a state constitutional amendment that would increase the difficulty of giving future pension sweeteners to public employees throughout Illinois. If adopted, his amendment would require the Legislature to approve pension increases by a three-fifths vote.

One inconvenient truth: Madigan, who turns 70 on Thursday, is in his 42nd year as a House member, having spent the bulk of that epoch as speaker. Most of the pension barters that have sabotaged taxpayers, as well as public workers who risk pension fund insolvencies, occurred on his watch. With his approval.

So forgive us if we're amused by this notion of Madigan as the Michael-come-lately eager to crack down on pension sweeteners. It's as if, having witnessed his colleagues torch and scorch Illinois from border to border, Madigan now wants to outlaw arson.

The speaker's loyalists would note that he genuinely understands the depth of the state's pension crisis. That's one reason why he regularly squelches proposed pension sweeteners by shunting those bills to slow but certain death in his Rules Committee.

The loyalists also stress that he has co-sponsored, with House Republican leader Tom Cross, legislation that would reduce pension benefits earned in future years by today's state employees.

If Madigan really wants to rescue the pension system and the taxpayers who help fund it, he needs to deliver on that promise. Pass the Madigan-Cross bill or something just as substantial.

But if he's hell-bent on changing the constitution, he should offer a very different amendment.

The most convenient excuse for lawmakers who oppose meaningful pension reforms is their stated belief that the Illinois Constitution guarantees — until death — the pension scheme that was in place on the first day of a worker's public employment. Yes, we think this is absurd, as do five world-class Chicago law firms that have examined the constitutional question. But the lawmakers, perhaps fearful that they're dead wrong in their certainty, have ducked our invitation to pass real reforms and let the courts resolve their legality.

How about it, Speaker Madigan. With apologies to James Madison, we'll donate to you and state government the following amendment, short and sweet:

The Pension Clause of the Illinois Constitution shall not be deemed a suicide pact requiring any government to let retiree benefits reduce it, and its taxpayers, to penury. Life is long, circumstances change, and what looks affordable today might beunaffordable a few decades from now.

That construct, Mr. Speaker, would do far more to protect public pensions for retirees than your proposed limitations on new sweeteners. Steer this freebie into the Illinois Constitution and you'll be remembered as the leader who oversaw decades of disastrous pension votes but, in his fifth House decade, enabled his fellow Democrats to vote for major pension reforms.

Keep trying to outlaw arson after having watched the Prairie State burn, though, and history will be less kind: You'll be remembered as the leader who stood face to face with a crisis he helped create and ... tried to make voters look away.