By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn found few allies today in his push to reform the pension systems for retired state workers.
Quinn faced a wall of sound from union protesters as he spoke on Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair this afternoon. His speech was barely audible over loud booing and chants of “Respect Illinois workers.” Several protesters shouted out “Keep your promises” as the governor tried to make himself heard over the crowd. A plane circled overhead carrying a banner that read “Gov. Quinn — unfair to workers.”
The event, usually meant to be a sort of pep rally for the party holding the governor’s office, instead served to display deep divides among Illinois Democrats over pension reform, the closure of state facilities and budget cuts that Quinn has said necessitated layoffs of state workers and a freeze on contractual raises.
Since lawmakers are scheduled to be in special session on Friday to debate pension reform, it was the issue of the day. House Speaker Michael Madigan laid the success or failure of pension reform in Friday’s special session at the feet of Quinn and House Minority Leader Tom Cross. He said the two are scheduled to meet Friday morning “So hopefully, we’ll get some resolve out of those discussions between Governor Quinn and Leader Cross,” Madigan said at a Democratic party breakfast this morning.
Quinn drew some protesters to the morning event, where union members handed out fliers and called out, “Act like a Democrat, Pat!” But it was little, compared to the pushback at the state fair, where protesters followed him on his way to the event booing and chanting and even crowded around him while he stopped for a snack.
“If you want to be governor of Illinois and you want to step into the arena, you’d better have a tough hide. I have a lot of people who may call me names, but I think there’s a lot of people in Illinois who agree with what I am trying to do, which is to make sure we invest in our children and have good education. And sometimes you have to make reforms like in the pension that are difficult but necessary for everyday people to have a good state,” Quinn said this morning. “We’re going to reform the pensions, and I know some of the state workers don’t like that, but they’re going to have accept what the voters — I think — at large want.”
Skokie Rep. Lou Lang, a member of Democratic leadership in the House, said that he applauds the union members for making their voices heard at the fair. However, Lang said: “I understand their concerns, and in many ways, I agree with them and may be voting with them. That still does not mean that we should not give the governor his due respect as the governor [and] as a person who has supported the things that matter to the men and women of organized labor for a very long time.”
Lang said he was disappointed that the party did not present more of a unified front today. But he also said that the scene was illustrative of the party’s history. “It was a bunch of Democrats getting together. And Democrats are pretty noisy when they get together, and we don’t always agree. I’m sure the Republican rally tomorrow will be a lot more homogenized, and I’m sure the Republican rally tomorrow will be a lot quieter. But having said all that, this is what the Democratic Party is. It’s what it’s about. It’s what it’s always been about. I’m proud of what happened today.”
Madigan, who is also the chair of the Democratic Party in Illinois, brushed off the acrimony over pension reform and other issues, saying he did not think it would do permanent damage to his party in the state. “We’re trying to balance the budget. We’re trying to improve the fiscal condition of the state of Illinois. People from organized labor are representing their people, and they ought to do that. ... It’s just a natural conflict that’s going to be there. I don’t think there’s any long-term adverse implications that are going to come out of it,” he said at the morning event. “Promises were made. But if you don’t have the money to pay the promise, I think you have to step back, bring everybody together, talk reality and look toward how we can restore some fiscal stability to the [pension] systems and to the state of Illinois.”
Madigan said that House Bill 1147, which would only apply to state workers and legislators and avoids the issue of shifting pension costs to local school systems and universities, would be progress. He said he presented a comprehensive reform plan during the regular session, but it was not approved by the House.
Quinn supports a plan from Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, that would apply to all state retirees. Nekritz’s bill would phase in a controversial cost shift to schools and universities more slowly than a plan that failed to gain Republican support at the end of regular session. “I really would like to see both leaders in the House of Representatives put 30 votes on a bill sponsored by Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz,” Quinn said. “It’s a good bill. It’s a reasonable bill. It will reform the pensions and do it once and for all in Illinois.”
Cross supports neither plan. He is opposed to proposals that would ask downstate and suburban schools and universities to assume the retirement costs for their workers. Cross said supporters claim that the cost would be 6 percent to 9 percent of payroll for most schools. However, he said that there are many factors that could make the numbers spike. “That’s a floor, and given the unfunded liability numbers out there, given the potential for market drops, given the potential for change in interest rates assumption, or [if] the General Assembly doesn’t make payments, that number climbs significantly,” Cross said at a Chicago news conference yesterday. Cross and other Republicans say a cost shift could result n increased property taxes and layoffs. Cross said he does not back a proposal that leaves out schools and universities. “If we do that bill, the day it becomes law, we’ll see litigation. It’s inevitable that we’re going to see litigation, and once that litigation starts, it’s our belief that we will cease the discussions on pension reform until the conclusion of a lawsuit.”
Cross said Quinn should keep lawmakers in session until a deal can be reached. “This needs to happen. It doesn’t need to happen after the election. It needs to happen now. ... And so, call us back to special session. And people are going to yell and scream, and they’re going to complain, and it’ll be chaotic down there [in Springfield]. But my approach is.,you put us in a room, lock the key, and when we’re done, you let us out.”
Despite the lack of agreement, Quinn remains optimistic that things could still fall in line to pass a bill on Friday. “I think each of the leaders is waiting for the other to move forward. And I hope we can in the next couple of days get everybody to jump aboard at the same time. Hold hands and let’s go together.”