By MONICA DAVEY
Published: January 1, 2013
CHICAGO — As Illinois lawmakers head back to work this week, Gov.Pat Quinn is seeking to use the practical advantages of a lame-duck legislative calendar to fix the state’s pension systems — the most underfinanced in the nation — in a matter of days.
Seth Perlman/Associated Press
Over the years, leaders here have fretted over the shortfall even as they watched it grow and grow, now reaching, by some estimates, $96 billion. Mr. Quinn, a Democrat, has come to describe the situation as the state’s “rendezvous with reality” and Illinois’s own “fiscal cliff.” He has tried — to somewhat mixed results and at least a degree of mocking — to stir up public concern by releasing videos, including one featuring an orange cartoon snake named Squeezy the Pension Python.
“We’re trying to do fundamental pension reform that has confounded 12 governors, 13 speakers of the House and 13 Senate presidents over the last 70 years,” Mr. Quinn said in a recent interview, adding that despite that troubled history, he believed that a meaningful overhaul of the state’s pension systems could be passed through the current legislature in a single week — after lawmakers begin returning to Springfield on Wednesday and wrapping up before newly elected lawmakers are sworn in at noon on Jan. 9.
“We have come to the moment,” Mr. Quinn said.
But whether the calls by Mr. Quinn and other leaders here — not to mention dire warnings from financial ratings agencies — will now suddenly make a difference remains uncertain.
Cartoon snakes aside, the task of shoring up the pension systems is legally and politically vexing, pitting a state legislature that is controlled by Democrats against the wishes of one of the party’s staunchest support blocs, public sector unions. The showdown is certain to ignite regional tensions over the way the pensions of public schoolteachers outside of Chicago are paid for, and could run up against legal barriers with a state Constitution that limits how pensions can be changed in the first place.
Mr. Quinn urged action on an overhaul last year with little success. The sudden push now comes, in part, because of the practical advantages these few days in January offer. More than 30 departing members of the State House and Senate are seen as having little to lose in casting politically difficult votes in their final days in office, and passage now would need only simple majorities rather than larger margins needed at some other points of the legislative calendar.
Still, those same advantages are prompting advocates for a long list of often-divisive causes — same-sex marriage, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, the expansion of gambling — to push for votes on their issues before the next legislature is sworn in.
Numerous ideas being weighed in Springfield to lower the pension shortfall would affect state workers, university employees, judges and others; such proposals include cutting cost-of-living increases in retirees’ paychecks and increasing the retirement age for workers and employee contributions to their pensions. Some lawmakers have also called for pension costs for teachers outside of Chicago — traditionally financed by the state — to gradually become the responsibility of local school districts.
Labor leaders have objected to two formal proposals being considered, questioning whether they violate a provision of the state Constitution barring pensions from being diminished or impaired. “Very simply put, all of them are unconstitutional,” Cinda Klickna, president of the Illinois Education Association, said of the proposals.
In recent weeks, a coalition of labor groups said that workers would be willing to increase contributions to their pensions if the state pledged to always make its pension payments, and it suggested closing corporate tax loopholes as a way to raise revenue. Some labor leaders wondered why workers should pay a penalty for the failure of state leaders to properly finance the systems for decades, and complained that in the scramble to pass a bill in a week, they were not being included in the discussions.
“There’s no reason to rush into this, and on the contrary, you want to be deliberate,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 here.
Among Mr. Quinn’s explicit wishes for a pension systems overhaul is that it have bipartisan support, a notion that may reflect the only practical way such a shift in public sector workers’ pensions could survive in Springfield.
“We should do it in a bipartisan manner — it really needs to get done,” said Tom Cross, the Republican leader in the House. “But they can do it by themselves, you know,” he said of the Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers. “At the end of the day, they don’t want to irritate the unions.”
And few here seemed willing to say whether Mr. Quinn’s vision of an overhaul by next week is truly realistic. “I don’t think he or I would venture a guess on that,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Michael J. Madigan, a Democrat and the longtime speaker of the State House.