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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 08:36 am

Quinn plays the politics of pensions

Gov. Pat Quinn’s office flatly denies it, but it’s hard to see how last week’s big announcement about calling a special session on pension reform wasn’t at least partially related to a major Chicago TV station’s special report on the very same subject a few hours after his proclamation.

The station, WGN, broadcast a lengthy documentary called “Pension Games” during its 9 o’clock news program, then hosted a live discussion afterward on its CLTV cable television station, along with an exclusive sit-down with Gov. Quinn. The station hyped the program for days, and Quinn took clear advantage of the public relations opportunity to promote himself, and even taking an opportunity to whack the General Assembly for cutting the schools budget after receiving a viewer call-in question about how the pension bill would impact his property taxes.

“For all of us, Mark, I want to thank you,” Quinn gushed to the program’s host, Mark Suppelsa. He most certainly wasn’t speaking for members of the General Assembly, however.

Legislators, particularly Republicans, complained about how the governor was calling a special session without actually having a plan in place or a bill to vote on. The governor’s office countered that Quinn would be happy with just about any plan currently on the table, and pointed to his decision to push for a 12-year phase-in of the so-called “cost shifting” plan, which would force Downstate and suburban school districts to pick up the employer share of their pension system’s costs. The Republicans have balked at the cost shift, saying it would skyrocket property taxes. The House Democrats months ago proposed a longer phase-in, and Quinn has now thrown his support behind a plan that has been kicking around ever since.

“I did my mighty best to get it done by May 31st,” Quinn claimed about pension reform during the TV program after a caller complained about the cost of bringing legislators back to town. The governor said he had no choice but to call a special session for Aug. 17, during the Illinois State Fair.

Senate President John Cullerton asked that the governor rescind his special session order, offering to call a session on his own, which would avoid the additional stipend costs. But the governor has so far refused to rescind his order, possibly because doing so would mean he’d have to relinquish the credit for the special session.

The governor has an effective counter-argument to complaints about the cost of a special legislative session. Quinn claims that doing nothing on pensions inflates the pension systems’ unfunded liability by $12.6 million every day. That number has been seized upon by the media, but it’s not exactly true. No pension bill currently on the table would change benefit plans immediately, and the pension systems have asked that any new legislation put off changes until July 1 of next year. So, that $12.6 million will continue to accrue no matter what happens during the special session.

But as long as the media continue to fully buy into Quinn’s argument, then the $40,000 per day cost of a special session will pale in comparison to the governor’s warning about a $12.6 million a day cost for doing nothing on pensions.

Quinn obviously believes he has public opinion behind him on this one, although some Democrats have pointed to polls which show Quinn is horribly unpopular in all the districts they’ve surveyed this summer and claimed that the pension reform proposals aren’t nearly as popular in politically targeted Democratic-leaning districts as they may be statewide. There is not much incentive for them to go along with Quinn on this one – at least not yet.

But even if the public were totally with him, the public doesn’t vote in special sessions, legislators do. And members of his own party aren’t exactly enamored with the guy. Quinn closed facilities in Democratic legislative districts, creating a huge political crisis. He ignored pleas by the Black and Latino caucuses to keep the women’s prison at Dwight open so families in Cook County would remain relatively close to the inmates.

And, in an unfortunate redux of his predecessor’s playbook, he has lately taken to bashing legislators for not toeing his line. On another TV program last week, Quinn said legislators might have to cancel their golf games to attend his special session. Quinn was speaking, but I could clearly hear Rod Blagojevich talking.  

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