By Jamey Dunn
New House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said today that if Democratic leaders want Republican votes on pension changes, they will have to include some proposals from Republicans in the final bill.
“I think it’s interesting that the Democrats have said there has to be Republican participation in a vote, but they need to take our suggestions as well. This isn’t a matter of Senate Democrats and House Democrats negotiating amongst themselves. If they want our participation — they want our votes — they will need to take our considerations and incorporate them in a bill,” Durkin said in an interview with Illinois Issues.
He added: “Otherwise, they’ve got 71 in the House, and they’ve got 40 in the Senate. They can pass a bill on their own. Good luck. Go do it.”
Durkin said he thinks the work of a conference committee on pensions has moved the process forward on finding legislation that could pass in both chambers. But he and other Republicans want to see some tweaks made to cut pension costs further. “I think what is promising is that there has been progress made. There needs to be more progress, and there needs to be an additional uptick in the savings. But that’s still open for negotiation.”
He said that annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) would likely have to be the target for more savings. The committee has been considering a proposal that would tie the COLAs to inflation. Employees currently receive a 3 percent annually compounded COLA. “The COLA, I think, is the most important part of the pension reform. I would say the most strain on the system has been through the 3 percent compounded COLA. To me, that is where a majority of the savings are going to be made.”
Durkin said he thinks it “may be a bit lofty” to expect that the issue will be tackled in the six session days that are scheduled for veto session. “I’ve been down here for a few terms, and one thing that I know about veto sessions is that they are generally overhyped,” he said. “This issue has such a profound impact on the state of Illinois — its residents, its employers — to just arbitrarily say that we have to get this thing done within six days in October and the first week of November, I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do. I want to do it right, and I want to do it once. If it takes us a little bit more time to get there, so be it.” But he said he does not want to see the issue go to far into the spring legislative session without a resolution because he said that next year’s elections could create a political climate that would make it difficult to get a bill passed. He said he is also concerned that the state could face another downgrade of its credit rating if lawmakers take too long to approve a plan.
The minority leader said he has met with House Speaker Michael Madigan and hopes to work with him. “My job is not to be someone who is the minority blocker or the minority agitator. The issues are too profound and too robust and too challenging for people in Illinois for the Republicans just to be the party of no. I want to work with the Democrats, whether it’s the Senate president or the speaker, to get the issues done,” he said.
Durkin said he and Madigan have always had a “cordial” relationship. “I’ve met with him. And right now, I think we’re just trying to get to know each other a little bit more. It’s different when you’re a member and on the other side. But I look forward to working with him on the right issues.”
In his own party, Durkin said, he plans to be a flexible leader and does not expect members of his caucus to vote in lockstep with him. For instance, he does not support same-sex marriage. However, he said: “It’s up to the individual members to make a decision of how it plays out in their district, and that’s all I ask them to do. It’s a deeply personal [and] very emotional issue. And I think that each member needs to make a decision about how it best works and fits in their district, and I just advise them to vote their conscience.” Durkin, a Catholic, said he has received calls from church leaders in the state asking him not to support the bill. He said that the state already has provisions, such as civil unions, that protect same sex couples.
But Durkin said he plans to back incumbents in primaries next year, regardless of how they vote on the issue. “I’m supporting every one of my colleagues who’s here, no matter how they vote on this issue, or any other issue. We are a caucus that is diverse, and we’re not going to agree on every issue. But my pledge to every one of them when I was elected two months ago was that I want each and every one of them to be returning with me when we get sworn in. ... I will support every one of my incumbents who have a primary challenge, no matter what [side of an] issue they take or whatever vote may prompt a primary.”
For more on the veto session, which begins today, see our preview here.