SPRINGFIELD – After singling out Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension crisis as the most important issue of his governorship, Pat Quinn could only watch this week as his latest self-imposed deadline evaporated with almost no progress in a Legislature over which he has little sway.
The governor suffered perhaps the worst fallout from this week’s lame-duck session, which ended when his surprise plan for an independent pension commission was derided as desperate. The Legislature, controlled by fellow Democrats, didn’t even call a vote on it.
He has been widely praised for good intentions and efforts, but now it could be more months without movement and no promise of a solution on his signature issue as Republicans – and even a few fellow Democrats – begin angling to challenge him in the 2014 governor’s race.
Quinn just shrugged it off Wednesday as a new General Assembly was sworn in, effectively restarting the process.
“You have to have deadlines in life,” he said. “Sometimes you make those deadlines, and sometimes you have to keep working, keep running. That’s what long distance is all about. You never stop working on something until you get to the finish line.”
Since he proclaimed last year that he was “put on Earth” to solve the pension crisis, Quinn has isolated the problem above other priorities such as paying bills, legalizing gay marriage and enacting broader gun control. He has called a special legislative session, overseen a pension working group, released studies, discussed it with students and even tried a more lighthearted approach with a Web campaign and its cartoon mascot, “Squeezy the Pension Python.”
In the waning hours of the lame-duck session, his staff said he talked with dozens of lawmakers to secure votes on a proposal. He testified before a committee and floated last-minute legislation tasking a commission to come up with solutions by April.
But none of it rippled into action on a final solution, something that experts say damages him on this particular issue and on his broader image.
“Every time he tries and loses a fight it just makes him weaker for the next one,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
The unsolved pension problem has further agitated Quinn’s already contentious relationship with unions, a key voting bloc he needs, particularly if a fellow Democrat makes the bold decision to challenge the sitting governor in a primary. Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, the son and brother of two of Chicago’s former mayors, says he is seriously thinking about it and has condemned Illinois’ lack of leadership on pensions as a reason.
Quinn also is locked in a legal battle over union pay raises and pushed to close prison facilities to save money at a time when prisons already are overcrowded and workers have safety concerns. Also, the undertone to pension talks is that state workers will have to pay more toward their own retirements or receive reduced benefits. A coalition of unions has criticized Quinn and asked for a pension summit so they could participate in the discussions.
“What he’s done is angered the unions ... he’s attacked the retirement security,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of the Illinois chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “This does not endear him to our members, to their families or the broader public.”
A solution to the pension mess would win Quinn widespread praise and likely neutralize union opposition. There’s no doubt that Quinn, like many governors, was handed a tough situation with the state’s leviathan financial problems, but his defenders credit him for keeping the governor’s office scandal free after his two immediate predecessors went off to prison.
For years, Illinois failed to properly fund its five pension systems, leading to a $96 billion hole that Quinn says grows by $17 million a day. His line of reasoning is that Illinois’ obligation this year – about $6 billion – will eat up revenue leaving less money for schools, health care and public safety.
Quinn had set Wednesday as a final deadline for an overhaul, stressing urgency after talks in previous months stalled, but fellow Democrats who run the Legislature were less determined to rush a solution through the lame-duck session with so much disagreement over the details.
Officials on both sides of the aisle praised Quinn for how relentlessly he pushed the issue, even though he couldn’t close the deal by his Wednesday deadline.
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, a Republican and former state senator, commended Quinn for being a “very strong and earnest advocate” after the two met last week on the issue.
“He doesn’t have a magic wand. He’s a mortal,” Cronin said. “I think he’s shown great leadership.”
Legislative leaders also applauded Quinn, though his background as a political reformer and outsider put him at a disadvantage.
“I give him credit, first of all, for prioritizing it and working,” said Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. “It’s not his strength passing legislation in the General Assembly. He’s never really been in the General Assembly.”
But the issue of his leadership, and a continued holdup on pensions, is likely to become fodder for Republicans who have their eye on 2014. And some expected challengers already are criticizing him.
“He tends to do quirky things like start silly websites that just further degrade the respect he needs in order to accomplish things. And then he waits until the last minute,” said Republican Sen. Bill Brady, narrowly defeated by Quinn in the 2010 race. “I don’t know if it’s his nature or in his past but you’ve got to confront these issues head-on and stay focused on them and not allow any time to waste.”
Treasurer Dan Rutherford, another potential Republican candidate for governor, called his independent commission a “Hail Mary” attempt that just “kicked the can down the road.”
Quinn’s spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the governor doesn’t consider the session a failure at all.
“I don’t think anyone with a straight face can say that Gov. Quinn has not gone to extraordinary lengths, starting from taking the political risk of placing this volatile issue front and center,” she said.