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Illinois House Adjourns, No Vote on Pensions

By Amanda Vinicky, with additional reporting from The Associated Press

A new session of the Illinois General Assembly begins Wednesday, when candidates who won in November’s elections take the oath of office. The outgoing class of legislators left the incoming one with quite a burden.

On Tuesday night, the previous General Assembly adjourned without doing anything to reduce Illinois’ $97 billion of pension debt.

House Speaker Michael Madigan made the motion to adjourn the chamber Tuesday just before 5 p.m.

“This is the motion that you’ve all been waiting for: I hereby move that this session of the General Assembly do stand adjourned sine die,” Madigan said.

Members had expected to vote on a last-ditch attempt by Gov. Pat Quinn to save the broken-down pension talks.

Quinn proposed setting up a commission that could recommend changes to bridge the deficit in public-employee pension accounts. The commission’s recommendations by April 30 would have taken effect unless the legislature voted against them.

Gov. Quinn took the unusual step on Tuesday of appearing before a legislative committee to be grilled on his newly-cooked up plan.

“We have to take extraordinary action to help break the gridlock,” Quinn said. “We all know this is a difficult issue for every single member, for all of us in the executive branch, and indeed for all those who are affected by the decisions. But we must have some sort of movement.”

Given that Quinn’s plan was kept secret until just before the committee, unions didn’t have much time to review it, and they did not need it.

Unions, who have battled every other pension proposal brought before the General Assembly, especially didn’t like this one.

“This you could say is clever. I would say, unfortunately, I think it’s a cynical and seemingly reasonable, but rather sad attempt to get something done,” said the Illinois Federation of Teachers’ Dan Montgomery.

“Why do we even need a General Assembly if everything can be turned over to a commission, it’s just crazy,” said Cinda Klickna of the Illinois Education Association.

“We are strongly opposed. I would simply characterize this as a desperate, Hail Mary pass,” said the AFL-CIO’s Michael Carrigan.

Legislators themselves mocked the plan.

“This is an embarrassing, desperation ploy from a guy who can’t get anything done,” said Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo).

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton credited Gov. Quinn with working hard on the issue, but indicated there’s only so much Quinn can do.

“It’s not his strength of passing legislation in the General Assembly — you know that, he’s never really been in the General Assembly,” Cullerton said. “But the four leaders have been here, we know how to pass bills, we know how to compromise. I’m offering compromises.”

Although Representatives passed Quinn’s measure out of a committee, several say it was mostly a courtesy to the governor. Then the full House adjourned without ever voting on it.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s spokeswoman said the Chicago Democrat is “very” disappointed that House lawmakers adjourned without calling for a vote on any pension legislation.

Meanwhile, the House didn’t take up two other pension proposals either, because there weren’t enough votes to pass them.

One plan - preferred by Senate President John Cullerton - passed out of that chamber back in May.

The other garnered a lot of attention earlier this week when it got bipartisan support from a House panel. Supporters of those separate proposals can unite in frustration that they stalled.

The main sponsors, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), each have questions about the legality of the others’ plan.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said it leaves her concerned that nothing will get accomplished.

“When you look at the dynamic of the General Assembly, the Democrats have had clear, clear majorities now for ten years,” Radogno said. “Republicans have worked very hard on pension reform. The problem is the Democrat majorities do not agree on pension reform, and frankly I’m not sure they want it.”

Despite Radogno’s pessimism, both Cullerton and Nekritz say they are willing to compromise.

Part of the rush to pass something—anything—is to hold off the bond rating agencies, which have threatened to lower Illinois’ already-weak credit rating.

Cullerton said there is no need for them to rush to judgment over the standstill.

“The pension system in the state are in no way bankrupt,” Cullerton said. “It’s just not true ... we’re behind in paying our bills. The pension system is less underfunded than it was in 1970.”

Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said she sees progress in addressing the state’s pension crisis even though House members adjourned without calling for a vote on any related legislation.

Currie said the focus on pensions during the lame-duck session was helpful and that any overhaul is extremely difficult. She says none of the pension legislation appeared to have enough votes, but there’s still reason to be optimistic.

Illinois already has the lowest credit rating of any state, and some legislators speculate - fear, even - that it will take a further downgrade to force reluctant politicians to get on board.

University of Illinois Finance Professor Jeffrey Brown said the failure of lawmakers to solve Illinois’ pension crisis could make it more challenging for the university to attract faculty.

Brown said at the end of the day, finding a pension fix is more than just an economic issue.

“We are competing for faculty with the likes of Harvard and Stanford and other private universities,” Brown said. “We’re competing with international universities, as well as publics in other states. The only way that we are going to be able to maintain a world class university is to be able to offer an overall compensation package that is competitive.”

While individual lawmakers have their own reasons for opposing various plans, Rep. Nekritz said there is one, overarching reason.

“This is a really difficult for vote for members to take,” she said. “We’re taking hundreds of thousands of people and impacting their pocketbook in a very direct way. In a way that says I made you a promise and I can’t keep it, and that’s a really hard thing to do.”

That difficulty doesn’t go away, even if there are fresh faces in the General Assembly; fresh faces who will begin building up pensions of their own.