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Don’t count on special session being so special

Pension reform continues to be a thorny issue

SPRINGFIELD – If you work around the Capitol, you probably knew the summer wasn’t going pass uninterrupted.

That will become a reality on June 19 when lawmakers will again descend on Springfield with the issue of pension reform staring them in the face.

They’ll once again have a chance to do something in a day that’s eluded them for the past 2-plus years.

What has changed on pension reform since lawmakers left town May 31? you may ask. Why, that’s a very good question, because the answer would seem to be, not much of anything.

Yes, two bond-rating agencies have cut the state’s credit rating, in part because lawmakers didn’t deal with pension reform. Those downgrades, both within the past week, were the pretext for Gov. Pat Quinn to summon lawmakers back to the Capitol.

“Will two downgrades in one week be enough to convince the General Assembly that our pension crisis can’t be ignored anymore?” Quinn said in a statement.

Think so? From 2009 on, the three major rating agencies have cut the state’s bond rating a combined 12 times. Do you see pension reform anywhere? A drop in the state’s credit rating doesn’t seem to be motivating anyone to do anything.

So far, there is still a fundamental disagreement between the House and Senate on the best way to pursue pension reform.

It doesn’t seem likely pension reform will get past where it is now, unless and until the Democratic majority leaders can at least agree on one approach to pension reform and then put their muscle behind seeing it pass.

Quinn’s tactic

failed in 2012

Quinn, you remember, called a special session on pension reform last year on the final Friday of the Illinois State Fair.

Lawmakers basically punched the time clock and then did nothing on pensions. The exercise didn’t do anything to dispel the widely held belief that Quinn is an effectual governor.

And that’s the danger to Quinn by calling another special session on pensions. If it doesn’t produce results, it will be another case of all show and no go for the governor.

It didn’t help that Quinn called a meeting earlier in the week between himself, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, to discuss pensions. Madigan was a no-show.

Madigan aides said Quinn was told in advance the speaker wouldn’t be there, although there’s been no explanation of why. Quinn said he hoped Madigan would call into the meeting by phone, but the explanation was Madigan doesn’t have a cellphone. That apparently precludes other forms of telecommunication.

It didn’t leave Quinn looking like a take-charge governor.

Budget not half bad

One of the somewhat overlooked accomplishments of the spring session was the budget approved by lawmakers.

Compared to the last couple of years, it wasn’t half bad. It avoided further cuts to education and preserved a lot of human services programs.

It’s important in the context of pension reform. One of the basic arguments for pension reform is that pension costs are strangling every other part of the state budget. Everything else is being whacked in order to keep money flowing into pensions. The House pension reform plan even includes a 9-page preamble documenting all the damage done to the budget because of this.

And then, all of a sudden, the General Assembly passes a livable budget. Lawmakers acknowledge it was made possible by a lot of one-time revenue, and that next year the budget could be right back in the dumpster.

But for now, it was a peculiar bit of timing in the pension debate.

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