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Little time for Dems to celebrate

Pensions crisis greets new General Assembly

SPRINGFIELD – Historic numbers of Democrats took seats Wednesday in the Illinois General Assembly, beginning a new legislative session facing unfinished business that involves another historic number: a $96 billion hole in public-employee pension systems.

A near-record 71 Democrats took the oath in the House, along with 40 in the Senate, which officials said was the most in history. The margins are large enough to render Republicans all but irrelevant and overcome any gubernatorial veto.

But looming over the Democratic celebration was a reality that the worst-in-the-nation pension crisis would remain difficult to solve, despite the lopsided roll call and renewed vows from both parties to urgently tackle the mess.

“There is greatness within and around all of you in this chamber, and we’re going to need it,” Senate President John Cullerton said after being sworn in for his third term at the helm. “My advice is to enjoy today and celebrate with your families, but you must know that tough decisions and votes await us in the weeks and months ahead.”

Joining Cullerton in leadership was Democrat Michael Madigan, who was elected House speaker for the 15th time.

There were speeches, interfaith prayers and a stunning, alto a cappella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But the disappointing collapse of negotiations in the waning hours of the lame-duck legislature over a House plan to resolve to the pension crisis cast a shadow over the first-day pageantry.

Ultimately, there was no vote on the measure to slice the state’s costs by increasing employee contributions, offering less-generous retirement benefits, and more.

“We’ve been living nothing but pain for the last several years in state government,” said new Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who moved over from the House, where he had been a leader on the pension issue. “And we know that we’ll continue living nothing but pain in state government until we solve this.”

Quinn predicted the dozens of newcomers would help push the issue along.

“A lot of the members ran on a platform of pension reform, and I think that will help us get that job done,” said Quinn, who has repeatedly set pension-solution deadlines, including one on Wednesday.

“I was a long-distance runner in high school,” the Democratic governor said. “What we have to do is keep running until we get to our destination and cross the finish line.”

Cullerton got things started Wednesday by filing Senate Bill 1, a pension-resolution effort. It combines provisions from a Senate-approved measure he contends is the only constitutional option for the problem, along with the increased contributions and reduced benefits in the bill that failed Tuesday to get a House roll-call.

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who has been speaker for all but two years since 1983, told a crowded auditorium at the local university that the issue proves difficult because it means taking away promised retirement benefits the state can no longer afford. Decades of underfunding by the state have made them unaffordable.

But “a great deal of good work has been done” that wasn’t discarded when the curtain lowered on the last legislative session, Madigan said.

“The issues haven’t changed that much, the natures of the issues have not changed that much,” Madigan said. “They remain terribly contentious, terribly divisive.”

One issue that had changed for a few days but is now back in play is the so-called “cost shift.” It involves the state transferring responsibility to local school districts for the employers’ portion of pension contributions for teachers. On Wednesday, Madigan called it a “free lunch” for local school boards who set instructors’ salaries but need not worry about how that pay benefits affects end-of-career allowances.

It had stymied negotiations for months because the GOP fears it would mean increased local property taxes. Madigan agreed to set it aside and proceed with the rest of the pension legislation, breathing new life into the matter over the weekend before it deflated again.

That’s one more issue to plug up talks that frustrated Biss and his partner, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, as they tried to gather support. Republicans don’t like burdening local schools with more costs. Democrats fear union backlash. Central Illinois lawmakers are trying to protect pensions for thousands of state workers.

“On these big issues you can always find some reason why not to vote for it ... , “ said Sen. Sue Rezin, a Morris Republican. “This is a tough vote and we need to take the vote. We are elected to take tough votes.”

Few lawmakers thought that newcomers to the Capitol, or Democratic majorities that could slam through legislation without Republican help, make that much of a difference. Some rookies, however, might not be ready for the visceral response the pension problem brings from constituents, said Sen. Michael Connelly, a Lisle Republican who left a House seat behind.

“We’ve got a number of new individuals who have never had 400 or 500 emails coming their way from constituents saying, ‘Vote one way or else,’” Connelly said. “... They asked for responsibility and with responsibility comes difficult choices.”

House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego and Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont also were re-elected to their posts in charge of the minorities in their respective chambers.

The day was not without mirth, partisan jabs or self-deprecating political humor. Cross said he was wearing a tie emblazoned with a University of Alabama logo and cheered, “Roll Tide!” to celebrate the team’s college football national championship over Notre Dame — the Irish being Madigan’s favorite.

Cullerton introduced many members of his extended family, including Rachel Sudimack, his son John III’s fiancee, who, he sheepishly told Radogno, is a Republican.

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