Saturday, June 01, 2013

It's really about what didn't happen

By Jamey Dunn

The big stories on the last day of the spring legislative session were the things that did not get done.

Both chambers adjourned without sending to the governor’s desk Senate Bill 10, which would have legalized same-sex marriage, or comprehensive changes to public employee pensions. (For more on same-sex marriage, see this blog from Meredith Colias.) A gaming bill fell apart. (See blog here.) A bill to gradually shift future pension costs to universities and community colleges, which the institutions agreed to, could not even find enough support to pass in the Senate.

“Obviously this is a session where we have not enjoyed great success. That’s very obvious,” House Speaker Michael Madigan said during his annual end-of-session closing floor speech. “However, that does not mean that we are going to walk away from our responsibility.”

Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton each dug in behind their own legislation to change the pension systems for public employees. Madigan’s Senate Bill 1 was soundly rejected by the Senate Thursday, and the House did not take a vote on Cullerton’s SB 2404. Supporters of Cullerton’s plan say that model, which offers employees a choice in their benefits reduction, is constitutional. They argue that Madigan’s plan, which would unilaterally cut benefits, is not. Backers of SB 1 say Cullerton’s plan would not save enough to stabilize the pension systems, which have an estimated $100 billion unfunded liability.

“The state needs [pension reform], and we failed. And I’m not proud of myself,” Sen. Daniel Biss, who sponsored SB 1, said after the Senate adjourned this evening. “Here’s what could happen: We could not do anything until October, or we could sit down and talk. I feel like both options are inadequate.” Biss added: “People are going to be cynical about talks. ... They’d be fools not to be.” But he said that talks would be better than doing nothing at all.

Moody’s Investor Services issued a warning earlier Friday that if Illinois did not pass pension reform before the end of the legislative session, state government may face another credit downgrade. Illinois already has the lowest Moody’s bond rating of any state in the nation. “We shouldn’t be worried about whether or not Moody’s is going to downgrade us; we should worry about how hard they’re going to laugh at us,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. Cross said on the House floor that “the only thing on the financial side that we needed to do is pensions,” and it didn’t get accomplished.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said she thought some “good stuff” was accomplished this session, including a compromise on concealed carry of firearms and the passage of hydraulic fracturing regulations. “But I really believe that every positive thing is absolutely overshadowed by the catastrophic failure to accomplish pension reform,” she said.

There was plenty of finger pointing to go around once it became apparent that the General Assembly was going home well before the midnight adjournment deadline without passing a pension bill. Cross said to Madigan during his floor speech: “When you want to get something done, you always find a way to get it done.” Madigan refused to talk to reporters as he left the House floor.

“The governor is going to bring Squeezy [the pension python] out again tomorrow because you guys couldn’t figure out how to communicate with the super majority of the same party on the other side of the building,” said Palatine Democratic Sen. Matt Murphy in reference to the cartoon mascot Quinn adopted to try to bring public attention to the pension problem. “We have not seen the governor. He has not done his job,” said Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Marengo. Franks said Quinn should immediately call a special session on pensions.

But the last pension special session Quinn called produced nothing but bad press. Instead, the governor has instead called for a meeting with the legislative leaders next week. “I will not stop fighting until pension reform is the law of the land. But as I said in my budget address, I cannot act alone. If I could issue an executive order to resolve the pension crisis, I would. And I would have done it a long time ago. “Today, Moody’s issued another warning to legislators that Illinois’ credit rating would soon be downgraded — again — if they did not act on pension reform. Downgrades hurt our economy, waste taxpayer money and shortchange the education of our children,” Quinn said in a written statement. “Yet every time Illinois is downgraded — legislators leave Springfield without getting the job done.”

Cullerton was less in a mood to throw stones. “It’s not because we didn’t try. There’s no blame to go around. It just people have different positions, and it’s difficult to get 30 votes on it,” he said after the Senate adjourned. “You can’t criticize the governor for not passing a bill on to the governor’s desk.”

Madigan said Thursday after his bill failed in the Senate that Cullerton had shown a “lack of leadership.” But Cullerton, whose bill is backed by public employee unions, said he could not force his members' hands. “I can’t order people to vote for bills that they clearly don’t want to vote for,” he said. He noted that the unions had lobbied heavily against Madigan’s bill.

“We applaud Senate President John Cullerton and the strong, bipartisan majority of state senators who voted for responsible, constitutional and comprehensive pension legislation — Senate Bill 2404,” the We Are One Union Coalition said in a written statement released after adjournment. “President Cullerton called House Speaker Michael Madigan's bill, which could not garner majority support in the Senate. Now the speaker should show true leadership and call SB 2404. A bipartisan majority of House members and Illinois citizens have been demanding a vote for weeks. It is the democratic thing to do.” Cullerton said he thinks his bill would have the votes in the House to pass, but a spokesman for Madigan said Thursday that he thinks there is no interest in the House for taking a vote on the bill.

For all the doom and gloom over the lack of pension legislation, Madigan ended his floor speech on a positive note. “I don’t think that we should take our lack of success today as a reason to give up.”

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