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Thursday, June 7, 2012 05:11 pm

Summer pension session unnecessary. Leaders will decide.

At least for now, it doesn’t appear that rank and file legislators will have to spend much time in Springfield this summer, even though they failed to finish their work on public pension reform last week.

Aides to Gov. Pat Quinn claim that they’ve learned from the mistakes of their predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, and won’t drag legislators back to the Statehouse for a grueling overtime session to find a solution to the pension problem, which has already overwhelmed the state budget. Blagojevich convened numerous overtime sessions and they were all divisive political circuses. Plus, forcing legislators back to Springfield to just sit around and wait for the leaders to come to an agreement means they’ll have plenty of time on their hands to bad-mouth the governor to reporters, who won’t have much to do, either.

Quinn himself signaled his understanding of this dynamic in an official statement issued after it was apparent that pension reform was dead in the water. “I will convene a meeting with President Cullerton, Leader Radogno, Speaker Madigan and Leader Cross in the coming week so we can forge a pension reform agreement as soon as possible and return to Springfield to enact it into law,” the governor was quoted as saying.

There’s really no need to convene the full General Assembly anyway because the real problem here is a fundamental disagreement among the legislative leaders. House Speaker Michael Madigan is still insisting on shifting employer pension costs away from the state and onto Downstate and suburban school districts. The House and Senate Republican legislative leaders are adamantly opposed to the cost shift idea, which would punish wealthier school districts that tend to have higher teacher and administrator salaries.

Madigan handed off control of the pension reform package to House Republican Leader Tom Cross earlier in the week and allowed the bill to be amended to strip out the cost shifting language at the behest of the governor. The next day, which was the very last day of the spring legislative session, Madigan let it be known that he would be voting against the bill. That was all it took for his members to jump off the pension bill as well.

Chicago House members were among those against the bill. Some were told by the governor’s people that Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported the revised legislation, but the mayor’s Springfield crew was never given the word to work in favor of the proposal. Emanuel has pushed hard for the cost shift plan, believing that the current system is unfair to Chicago schools, which pay their full share of employer pension costs.

With the Speaker voting “No” and Emanuel not working for the bill, it eventually became clear to the governor’s office that there was simply no way to pass the legislation. Cross told the House that this would be a “summer issue” and said that emotions needed a chance to cool down.

The Republicans (and Downstate and suburban Democrats) are so completely against any talk of a cost shift – even one that phases it in over many years – that the issue appears almost impossible to resolve. But Madigan and Emanuel know that there’s probably no better vehicle to attach the idea to than the politically important issue of pension reform, so they’re not giving up, either. 

The solution might wind up being about more money for Chicago, perhaps done in a way that gives additional cash to education in general.

Then again, there’s been little willingness on Speaker Madigan’s part this year to move forward with a bill that riles up teachers before an all-important redistricting election. State and university workers and retirees are mostly concentrated in little pockets around the state, so their legislative political impact is limited. But public school teachers and retirees are literally everywhere. And there are a lot of them. And they are very politically active.

Whatever the case, bringing the entire General Assembly back to town is probably a really bad idea. The Senate showed last week that it can pass a pension reform bill when it approved a plan to change the State Employees Retirement System on what appeared to be a carefully structured roll call. If the leaders can be put on the same page, then the members will undoubtedly follow.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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