New day, new lawmakers, same Ill. pension fight
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — New day. New lawmakers. Same old pension-reform dispute.
Illinois legislators failed to deliver a solution Tuesday to a ballooning, $96 billion pension deficit. As a new General Assembly prepared to take the oath Wednesday, lawmakers said they would try again with fresh legislation and a larger Democratic majority, but there was no certainty a new line-up would lead to a deal to prevent the crisis from hurting the state's economy.
After a weekend of revived talks that hinted at progress, the House failed to even vote on a proposed pension solution Tuesday night. The reasons are as varied as the geography of Illinois, from the Mississippi River hills of East Dubuque to the Ohio River lowlands of Old Shawneetown.
"It would be great if we had one thing we could focus on and get it corrected, but that's not the way this works," said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, the sponsor of the last, best House effort to close the funding gap with greater contributions from state employees and less-generous retirement benefits, among other provisions.
Lawmakers representing large numbers of state employees worry about cutting benefits. Democrats with ties to strong unions fear backlash. Republicans believe defined-benefit pensions should be dumped for 401(k)-style plans.
Nekritz's legislation, however, had buy-in from House Republican Leader Tom Cross, of Oswego, the lawmaker Democrats have blamed since May for holding up a solution. Gov. Pat Quinn convinced powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan to allow consideration of a bill that excluded, for now, shifting any teacher-pension costs to local school districts, which Cross opposed.
Despite his efforts, the Democratic governor suffered the greatest, having set up the must-do Jan. 9 finish line but breaking the tape empty-handed. In a last-ditch effort that opponents called desperate, Quinn pulled out legislation creating an independent commission to make necessary pension changes — but even that failed to get a House roll call.
Whatever hope there was in the session's final days initially came from a concession by Madigan. The speaker agreed last week to forgo a proposal shifting school districts' pension costs to the state, which Republicans feared would lead to local property tax increases.
But the speaker, a master of generating votes for bills he supports, took no visibly public role after that. Nekritz said Madigan supported her effort to build consensus for her proposal, but would not answer specific questions about how he was lending a hand or whether she'd asked him for help.
Madigan has said for months that Republican votes, not just Democratic ones, were needed to pass reform.
"The bipartisan coalition that was needed to pass a pension reform bill didn't come together. That's been a continuing challenge over several years," Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said. "We'll continue to work on it."
The prospects for the new Legislature to successfully deal with the issue were far from clear Wednesday, and some were warning about continued failure to do so.
"It's scary going forward because the only other alternative is an additional tax increase, and everyone in the state should be worried about that," said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont.
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