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Thursday, April 1, 2010 02:42 am

Pension reform will cost Quinn campaign cash

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In roughly ten and a half hours last week, the House and Senate introduced, debated and passed sweeping pension reform legislation by overwhelming majorities in both chambers.

The breadth of the legislation and the speed by which it passed despite heated opposition by hugely powerful Statehouse interests has not been seen in Springfield in decades, if ever. The only thing to compare it to is when House Speaker Michael Madigan turned against his trial lawyer allies and muscled through medical malpractice reform legislation a few years ago. But that didn’t happen in a single day. And while the trial lawyers are very important players, their campaign cash and staff assistance pales in comparison to what the public employee unions regularly give.

Some are also comparing it to “Operation Cobra,” when Madigan passed a tax hike in a single day. But Madigan didn’t go up against a phalanx of major Democratic-leaning interest groups like he did last week.

Threats of recrimination were heard throughout the day as Democrats muscled the bill to the governor’s desk.

Without the Service Employees International Union’s $1.7 million during the recent Democratic primary, Gov. Pat Quinn would’ve likely been toast. But SEIU is in no mood to help him now. The teachers’ unions went with Dan Hynes against Quinn and it’ll be more than a little tough to pry cash out of them this fall. AFSCME was neutral and will probably stay that way come November. Unless he can repair the damage, last week’s action might have cost Gov. Quinn’s campaign somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million -- not to mention all those volunteers to staff phone banks and walk door to door.

Then again, Quinn’s Republican rival state Sen. Bill Brady is not exactly labor-friendly. In fact, he has such an anti-union record that the governor is probably figuring all will be forgiven if and when the unions see the real prospect of a Brady administration coming down the pike. Last week’s move was one of the greatest election-year gambles I’ve seen.

As far as voters are concerned, this is a no-brainer. As with Madigan’s earlier flip on the trial lawyers, voters have turned sharply against the unions on the pension issue.

Some of the usual suspects were notably unimpressed with last week’s bill, including the Chicago Tribune editorial page (which whines about everything). Eden Martin, the president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, blasted the proposal, saying: “The people of Illinois are not going to be satisfied with tiny steps in the right direction when we have a state fiscal crisis of this magnitude on our hands.”

But those with actual experience in the legislative process and who understand that politics is the art of the possible and not about getting everything you want were far more impressed. Doug Whitley, the president of the Illinois Chamber, practically gushed about the bill last week. Whitley has long championed pension reform and he was smiling ear to ear all afternoon.

Quinn’s budget director David Vaught said last week that it became clear during meetings with New York bond analysts that the state was in danger of a possible “double downgrade” in the run-up to a $1 billion bond sale next month. Such a downgrade would’ve put the state on par with California’s miserable credit rating and cost the state big money. New York demanded legislation that would save the state at least $100 billion, and Vaught estimates that the bill approved last week would save far more than that.

The next fight will be over the savings generated by the reform bill. The proposal is estimated to save the state somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion next fiscal year. Real projections were impossible to find because the bill was zipped through so fast that nobody had time to consult an actuary. The governor has already budgeted a $300 million savings. Anything more than that could, in theory, be used to lessen the governor’s proposed billion-dollar cut to education. But doing so would undermine Quinn’s position that a tax hike is needed for schools, so he’d have to switch to a tax hike for the bureaucracy, which wouldn’t be popular at all with voters. The governor says he’s sticking to that $300 million figure no matter what, but the teachers may have other ideas.

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

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