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Pension tension to headline 2014 campaign

Published: Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

Finally, the Illinois Legislature has passed a pension reform bill.

So now, we know what’s in it.

The House and Senate had proposed different versions of the bill, and the final legislation was a negotiated deal involving Democratic and Republican leaders of both chambers.

But until each side compromised, we didn’t know the terms of the legislation that would be sent to Gov. Pat Quinn for his signature.

The governor didn’t monkey around with his power of line-item veto before he signed the bill Thursday, so we know what’s in the new law.

That’s how the legislative system works.

STATE SEN. KIRK Dillard couldn’t resist comparing the new pension bill to the Affordable Care Act.

“Remember what Nancy Pelosi famously said about Obamacare, as it was ramrodded through Congress – ‘we need to pass this bill to find out what’s in it,’” Dillard said in a news release the day after the pension bill passed. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of ‘buyer’s remorse’ from that decision. We should have learned our lesson!”

Well, that’s not exactly what the then-House Speaker said in March 2010 at the annual legislative conference of the National Association of Counties. But at least Dillard, an experienced legislator, understood the quote in the context of the lawmaking process.

What Pelosi actually said was, “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it – away from the fog of the controversy.” (emphasis added)

At that time, the House had passed a health insurance reform bill, and Pelosi was imploring the Senate to act. She couldn’t talk about provisions of a new law, however, because it was still being debated – it had not been put into a final form and sent to the president.

But both her words and context got mangled in the right-wing echo chamber that continues to represent the comment as something it wasn’t.

In politics, some folks don’t want to be confused by the facts.

DILLARD IS AMONG four Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for governor in the 2014 election.

But he’s a Republican who is courting a traditionally Democratic union vote. So his opposition to the pension fix was more than just a shot at the Democratic governor – it was an attempt to court voters outside the usual Republican constituency.

He hopes that will separate him from fellow Sen. Bill Brady, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, and billionaire Bruce Rauner, a political newcomer who already has dropped about $1 million of his own money into the campaign – much of it for TV advertising.

Quinn has only token opposition for the Democratic nomination in the March 18 primary election, but he would seem to be a political dead man walking unless Republicans find a way to blow this chance at the governor’s office as they did in 2010.

Rauner has polled well recently, no doubt because 1) he’s already spent a lot of money and 2) he doesn’t have the political baggage that is being carried by the three state government veterans he is running against.

Rauner’s campaign has focused on state fiscal matters and has (so far) avoided wading into the pool of social issues (marriage equality, abortion, etc.) where Brady drowned in 2010.

That promises to be an interesting primary campaign.

NO DOUBT, THIS recent revision in pension law will be a core issue in the governor’s race – for both Democrats and Republicans.

Quinn will crow about having finally done something to address the staggering liability of the overly generous pension programs for public employees in Illinois.

Republicans will hammer away – and rightfully so – about how inadequate that pension “fix” is.

Although the complainers have a point, they should understand how difficult it has been to get any pension reform accomplished in the Legislature.

Yes, there is always the right thing to do – and then there is the Legislature’s way of trying to do it.

Part of that lawmaking process involves dropping a huge sausage ... er, bill in front of legislators with only a day or two to consume and digest it before they must vote.

Quinn had better be clear that this pension bill is just a first step – and a small one at that – in a long process to address the pension mess and its part in the state’s budget problems.

Republicans will pummel Quinn over the tardy and incomplete response to the state’s fiscal crisis.

This campaign is going to get ugly.

MOST VOTERS WON’T sympathize with any candidate who tries to defend a system that allows some public employees to retire in their 50s with six-figure pensions.

And despite the reforms, that’s still the situation – and will be for a decade unless further changes are made.

The reform has at least changed the ridiculous 3 percent, compounded annual increases in the cost of living allowance for state pensioners. And it raises the retirement age for current public employees 45 and younger, plus puts a cap of about $110,000 on salaries that are the basis for pension payments.

Unions say those needed changes will diminish members’ pensions in violation of the state Constitution, so the courts will have to provide some guidance on how far the Legislature can go to undo the damage it has done with pension laws over the past few decades.

Maybe it will need to amend the Constitution.

QUINN WON’T BE the only state officeholder under fire in 2014 over the pension problems.

His lieutenant governor, Sheila Simon, served notice this week that she will be swinging the pension club in her campaign to unseat state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.

Back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, Topinka, a Republican, was among legislators from both parties who kept voting to increase pension benefits for public employees – including the pensions of legislators themselves.

By 2009, Topinka was drawing a pension of $141,000 a year – 23 percent higher than her salary.

That’s not unusual for state pensioners. The compounded 3 percent annual cost-of-living raise has led many government retirees to receive pension payments that exceeded their working salaries.

Hey, that’s Illinois!

“Like many other Springfield politicians in 1989, Judy Baar Topinka chose feathering her own nest over protecting taxpayers and union workers,” Simon said in a news release last week after the reform bill passed.

Simon, who jumped overboard from what appears to be Quinn’s sinking political ship, opposed the bill that the governor supported.

So, we now have a partial bipartisan “fix” for a mess that was caused by legislators of both parties who benefited both politically and financially from the pension monster they created.

In the 2014 campaign, it ought to get ugly.

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