SPRINGFIELD – New veto-proof Democratic majorities were sworn into office in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday, and leaders vowed to keep trying to solve the state’s worst-in-the-nation pension problem after talks collapsed at the end of the lame-duck session.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton were re-elected as leaders of their respective chambers. Cullerton will oversee a 40-19 majority, the most Democrats elected in the Illinois Senate in at least 120 years.
“There is greatness within and around all of you in this chamber, and we’re going to need it,” Cullerton said after being sworn in for his third term as president. “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.”
After accepting his re-election as speaker, Madigan said the state’s ballooning $96 billion pension deficit remains the most serious problem that lawmakers face and vowed to continue negotiations to solve it. He called it a “terribly contentious” issue because any reform would be a change to what workers had been promised.
But he also stressed the importance of addressing what’s known as the “cost-shift,” a proposal in which the expense of teacher retirements would be transferred from the state back to downstate and suburban school districts. That issue was a major sticking point in the failed compromise talks because Republicans feared it would lead to higher property taxes, but Madigan called the current situation a “free lunch” for schools that needs to be addressed.
Madigan said he was willing to set the issue aside temporarily to accomplish some pension overhaul, and it is bound to return to negotiations in the new Legislature.
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. Both Madigan and Cullerton are from Chicago.
Gov. Pat Quinn had set a Wednesday deadline for legislators to pass meaningful reform. In a last-ditch effort that opponents called desperate, Quinn proposed creating an independent commission to make necessary pension changes. But even that failed to get a House vote and lawmakers adjourned without achieving any pension reform.
Quinn warned that missing his deadline means bond rating agencies will downgrade Illinois’ credit as early as Wednesday. The governor told lawmakers that without action, the state’s credit worthiness is in “dire jeopardy.”
There also were efforts during the lame-duck session to legalize gay marriage in Illinois and put restrictions on assault weapons and their fast-feeding ammunition devices. Some lawmakers promised to revisit those issues in the new General Assembly.
One measure did receive approval, a bill that Quinn plans to sign allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. But nothing was heard of other measures that were in line for lame-duck consideration, including medical marijuana and expanded casino gambling.
The pension problem, Quinn noted, goes back decades. Years of inattention by lawmakers and governors to properly fund state-run pension accounts caused the situation. Without reducing costs, catching up means the state’s annual payment will continue to eat up money that would otherwise go for schools, health care and public safety.