By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn continues to push for pension reform and says he will decide on a controversial energy policy bill tomorrow.
“It shouldn’t take that long really. It’s something that everybody’s talked about all year,” Quinn said. “We just cannot postpone this matter any longer. It isn’t an election calendar that we’re looking at here, I think some members may be in the legislature. But we’re dealing with the bond rating agencies.”
He said that if lawmakers don’t pass pension reform soon, the state may face a downgrade of its credit rating. “If we don’t act, we’re asking for trouble.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to return for a special session to address pension reform on August 17. Quinn said the legislative pension working group met Wednesday and plans to hold more meetings leading up to session next week. “We’re pretty close, I think, on what needs to be done.” However, Quinn seems to be the only player in the negotiations who is taking such an optimistic view.
The governor is throwing his support behind legislation sponsored by Northbrook Democrat Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a member of a legislative working group negotiating pension reform.
Nekritz filed her plan, House Bill 6209, last week. It is similar to a version of Senate Bill 1673, which was under consideration at the end of the regular legislative session. The major difference is that it would make a shift of pension costs from the state to colleges and school districts outside of Chicago more gradual. Many Democrats believe that schools should pick up the cost for their employees' retirement benefits, but Republicans argue that shifting the expense would mean layoffs and increased property taxes.
However, House Minority Leader Tom Cross continues to oppose the cost shift to schools “The bottom line is that a pension cost shift is exactly that — a cost shift, not reform. We remain in total support of comprehensive pension reform of our pension systems. We have been and are willing to work with the other legislators and the governor to come up with a comprehensive solution as soon as possible,” said a prepared statement from Cross spokeswoman Sara Wojcicki Jimenez.
Quinn said that it is “curious” that Republicans do not support the plan because “ a lot of the interest groups that tend to support the Republican candidates” back Nekritz’s proposal.
House Speaker Michael Madigan reportedly plans to call another bill, HB1447, for a vote. The Senate passed the bill on the last day of regular session. It only applies to the General Assembly and state workers, so it dodges the touchy subject of a cost shift altogether.
Quinn has continually called for a “comprehensive” plan that applies to all the pension systems in the state. “I think it’s important that we get a good start. ... I think it would be a good thing if the House addresses [HB 1447], but I also want them to address Elaine Nekritz’s bill, which is really a comprehensive bill that will cover everything. It think that’s the best way to go.”
On that issue, Cross and Quinn say they agree. Cross also backs a “comprehensive” solution that would affect all workers, including teachers.
Nekritz has another bill, HB 6210, which she said could be a “companion” to HB 1447. It applies to university workers, community college employees and teachers. The measure also contains a cost shift.
As they stand now, Nekritz’s bills cannot be passed in a single day. But Quinn thinks there are other ways to get the job done. “There’s a lot of different parliamentary techniques you can use in order to get a vote done in one day. That may be one of the ways to go.” One option would be to put the language of the legislation into another bill that has already been moved through much of the legislative process. Nekritz said she introduced her measures to start a conversation but is uncertain of the likelihood of their passage. “I think the plan is to put this out for discussion purposes,” she said on Monday.
Both bills have immediate effective dates, so they would require a three-fifths majority to pass in 2012. While Quinn said that he wants reform as soon as possible so the state can start to reduce its pension liability, he conceded that it might not happen. “I would hope to have three-fifths of both houses voting [yes], but if it was a majority, that’s definitely significant progress. We may have to adjust certain of the bills if there’s only a majority available.” If a three-fifths majority cannot be found, the earliest any reforms could go into effect would be June 1, 2013.
Quinn also said he plans to make his decision on Senate Bill 3766 by tomorrow. That measure would override a ruling from the Illinois Commerce Commission and clear the way for the construction of a coal gasification plant on Chicago’s southeast side. Without the bill, Leucadia National Corp., financial backer of the project, says it will not go forward. However, the plant is opposed by several environmental groups and business organizations, who say it will increase the price of natural gas for customers statewide. “I’ve been working on that one. That bill — I have my stuff with me, my files. So tonight, I’ll look at it and make a decision by tomorrow. That’s a complicated matter. You’ve just got to look at it from top to bottom.” Quinn is in an awkward position because the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer watchdog group he founded, opposes the bill, but the governor has backed the Leucadia project in the past.