If Gov. Pat Quinn learned anything in the aftermath of the failed lame-duck legislative session, it was this: Quit setting deadlines.
Last spring, the governor set a drop dead date for the legislature to act on pension reform.
He had to establish another deadline in the summer months.
And, in November, after lawmakers had still not discovered a path to repair the state’s massively underfunded employee retirement systems, the state’s chief executive officer set Jan. 9 as the deadline for the General Assembly.
“This is the final deadline,” Quinn said.
As you know by now, the House and Senate again blew the deadline and adjourned Tuesday without having resolved the state’s biggest financial problem.
The abrupt end to the session means lawmakers will go into the spring trying to hammer out a budget for next year with even less money available for things that voters care about. Beginning July 1, the state will have to pay $1 billion more toward its pension obligation, meaning $1 billion fewer dollars for schools, mental health treatment, child welfare and universities.
A new General Assembly was sworn in on Wednesday. Many of the same lawmakers who were unable to agree on a pension deal were surrounded by their kids, moms, dads and grandmas.
Republican Chapin Rose of Mahomet, who is moving to the Senate after a decade in the House, had his mom in town for the festivities. Republican Jason Barickman, now of Bloomington, could be seen later in the day posing for celebratory pictures outside the Capitol with his entourage.
Republican state Sen. Bill Brady and his wife, Nancy, were on the Senate floor, as was his trusty campaign aide, Dan Egler, who will be helping the Bloomington Republican in another bid for governor in 2014.
Amidst the pomp and revelry, Republican Tom Cross of Oswego, the minority leader in the House, tried to keep the mood somber in light of the failures.
“We’re facing challenges in the state that we probably haven’t seen as a General Assembly since the Great Depression,” Cross said.
His counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont, pledged renewed vigor in the search for pension reform.
“Today is about flowers and fanfare and festivities. But we will be right back down to work tomorrow,” she said.
Tomorrow came Thursday. The House and Senate were in session for a few minutes, attending to things like sorting out who gets to park where.
And then they all left town, eyeing a schedule that doesn’t have them returning to the Capitol for two weeks.
Quinn, too, scurried back to Chicago where, we presume, he’ll be trying to decide when the next deadline for pension reform should be set.
If Quinn has learned anything, he’ll just say November 2014 and hope it happens earlier.
Here’s the rationale:
During former Gov. Jim Thompson’s tenure in the 1980s, money that should have gone to pay the state’s share of the five retirement systems was instead funneled to education. The beneficiaries were the taxpayers.
During Jim Edgar’s tenure in the 1990s, the pension payment schedule was back-loaded in order to keep money flowing for other programs.
This avoidance of reality happened again with Rod Blagojevich when the mop-topped weasel muscled through a pension borrowing scheme to avoid the need to raise taxes to pay for his expansion of health care.
And now the bill has come due.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, summed things up on Wednesday: “This issue has lingered for generations and threatens to doom future generations if something isn’t done. We are on the verge of our state budget turning into a financial plan that funds pension benefits rather than essential services.”
Give some credit to Quinn for being realistic about the state’s budget problems. He raised taxes because his predecessors had figured out a way to use pension money to avoid tough choices.
But that 67 percent tax hike everyone is so angry about really isn’t enough to correct three decades of punting on pensions. Don’t even listen to the politicians who claim we can cut our way out of this mess.
That’s why a true solution to the state’s pension problem likely won’t come until the lame duck session of 2014. With the controversial temporary income tax increase about to expire, the state will be faced with a true fiscal cliff.
Hopefully, Illinois legislators will handle the cliff better than it was handled in Washington, D.C.