Gov. Pat Quinn challenged lawmakers Wednesday to pass comprehensive pension reform immediately, but at least two local legislators doubt that would solve the state’s budget squeeze.
The state is facing a $97 billion unfunded pension liability, which Quinn said grows $17 million a day. But pension reform isn’t a magic bullet, said state Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley.
“That liability doesn’t go away the instant we pass something,” Pritchard said.
In his annual budget address, Quinn proposed slashing school funding – both K-12 schools and universities – by $400 million. Quinn said the Legislature’s inability to tackle pension reform is squeezing other services; at least $800 million in new revenue will be eaten by rising pension payments, the governor projected.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Quinn put the responsibility for pension reform on lawmakers.
“If I could issue an executive order to resolve the pension crisis, I would. And I would have done it a long time ago,” Quinn said. “But democracy requires action by the executive branch and the legislative branch. It’s time for you to legislate.”
However, state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said there are a number of things Quinn can do to push for pension reform, such as continually calling for special sessions until a solution is worked out.
While the governor mentioned provisions he would want to see in any pension reform proposal – including increased employee contributions and changing the cost of living adjustment – Syverson said he wants an actual proposal from Quinn.
“Nothing is precluding the governor from introducing his own plan with specifics in it,” Syverson said. “No one wants to put it in writing, because they are afraid of the political fallout for being the architect of the plan that is ultimately implemented.”
Quinn’s proposed budget would maintain funding for early childhood education programs as well as the MAP grant program for college students. The budget would give a $25 million boost to mental health services, as well as additional funding for veterans’ nursing homes.
State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, took exception to Quinn proposing funding increases to certain programs, as well as expanding Medicaid, but cutting education.
“It’s the old model of place the pain in the place where it will hurt the most,” Bivins said. “I always go back to budgeting fundamentals – don’t create programs in the midst of a fiscal crisis.”
State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said he would want to roll back part of the proposed cuts.
“We’ve got to be cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of budget pressures out there, but if you say education is a top priority, it sends a mixed signal to cut it by at least $300 million,” Demmer said.