Monday, April 07, 2014

Quinn says gaming expansion talks "on the right path," pans Chicago pension plan

By Jamey Dunn 

Gov. Pat Quinn today weighed in on some issues potentially facing lawmakers this spring session. The governor had some positive comments about a possible gambling expansion but criticized Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to address the underfunded pension systems for city workers.

Quinn has been viewed as the roadblock to long-proposed racetrack and casino gambling expansion in the state. While the governor signed off on allowing video poker in bars, truck stops and restaurants across Illinois as part of funding for the capitol construction plan, he has twice vetoed gambling expansions for casinos and horse-racing tracks that have been sent to his desk. But he told reporters in Chicago today that he thinks some progress has been made on the topic. He said that he would not support any gambling expansion unless it has strong ethics rules and oversight from the Illinois Gaming Board. A proposed Chicago casino, which would be owned by the city, has been the target of Quinn’s scrutiny. He says he backs the idea, but so far has not liked the way lawmakers have proposed structuring the oversight of a city casino. “You’ve got to have strong ethical standards, and I think they need to be enforced, and it has to be done by the independent Illinois Gaming Board,” Quinn said today. “I think we have kind of ironed that out. I think we’re on the right path.” The governor has also said in the past that he would not support an expansion unless the revenues went to fund education.

Quinn said he is willing to meet with those supporting an expansion bill and then said he thinks the “issue could come up this year.”

The governor had less than positive things to say about Emanuel’s proposal to reduce the city’s $19.5 billion unfunded liability for its workers pensions. The plan would ask employees to pay a larger portion toward their retirement benefits and reduce their annual cost of living adjustments. The city would also increase local property taxes to bring in an additional $50 million per year for five years beginning in 2016. Pensions for police, firefighters and teachers are not included in the plan. If those systems are added in, the city’s unfunded liability is more than $29 billion.

House Speaker Michael Madigan is sponsoring the measure, which passed in committee but failed to make it to a floor vote last week. As part of his budget proposal for next fiscal year, Quinn pitched a plan to offer property tax relief to many homeowners while extending the current income tax rates. Today, Quinn said he was not impressed by the mayor’s proposal. “I wouldn’t call a bill; I would call it a sketch. It kept changing by the hour,” he said. Quinn said he wants to see a “comprehensive” proposal to address the shortfall in the city’s pension systems, but he would not offer specifics. “If they think they’re just going to gouge property taxpayers, no can do. We’re not going to go that way,” he said. “Chicago has to address its own situation with respect to pension reform, but I think they need to be a whole lot more creative than I have seen so far.”

 Emanuel has pitched the concept as a hard-fought compromise worked out with unions. However, some labor groups do not support the bill. “We finally have a model that brings both reform and revenue together,” Emanuel told reporters at a different Chicago news conference today. “It was never anyone’s intention to have Springfield deal with that. That’s our responsibility. But I do believe, to actually give the 61,000 workers and retirees the certainty they deserve, you need reform and revenue. And we’ll deal with our responsibility.” The city’s pensions are governed by state law, so the General Assembly must approve any change. However, the city can increase the property tax on its own. A major sticking point in getting the bill passed is whether the increase will be included in the legislation. State lawmakers do not want to take the hit for a tax increase they believe should be approved at the local level. But unions want the security of knowing that the revenue would come with the benefit reductions instead of counting on city officials to approve the tax increase after their members’ benefits have already been cut.

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