SPRINGFIELD – After all the big talk, rare legislative proceedings and countless vows, Illinois lawmakers left Springfield having failed to deliver on a fix to the state’s nearly $100 billion pension debacle, setting up an even more difficult road ahead.
To some, the lack of action marred an intense spring legislative session that saw some big accomplishments: Before Friday’s adjournment, lawmakers approved a budget without cuts to education, a historic expansion of Medicaid, medical marijuana, concealed carry and a breakthrough compromise to regulate hydraulic fracturing. But they didn’t take votes on a bill making Illinois the 13th state to approve same-sex marriage, a major gambling expansion or a way to starting digging out of its unprecedented pension debt.
“The 500-pound elephant in the room is pensions,” said Kent Redfield, a retired political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield and former House staff member. “It’s a huge failure.”
With lawmakers not back until the fall, the options to get back to work on the problem aren’t easy. And the pressure doesn’t appear to be fading.
The crisis has already led bond houses to give Illinois the lowest credit rating and they’re likely to lower it again. Several governors from other states have already tried to poach Illinois jobs playing up that fact. And the inaction sets the stage for Gov. Pat Quinn to answer tough questions on the 2014 re-election trail.
Quinn could call lawmakers back, but special session requires a three-fifths majority rather than a straight majority and his track record isn’t great. A special session he called on pensions last year ended without results.
Momentum to finally tackle the decades-old problem seemed in full swing this year. Quinn had made it his top priority and House Speaker Michael Madigan applied a rarely used legislative procedure in February to take piecemeal votes on numerous parts of the pension problem to gauge where lawmakers were. Several concrete plans emerged and new lawmakers got a crash course on the issue.
But in the final hours of the session, both chambers remained deadlocked. Madigan sponsored a bill, with Quinn’s support, that slashed benefits across the board. It was defeated in the Senate. Senate President John Cullerton pushed his overhaul, which would give retirees a choice between health care or other pension benefits, claiming it would survive a constitutional challenge. It never left a House committee.
Even the most minor pension overhaul – getting state universities and community colleges to gradually pay their own retirement costs – died on the Senate floor late Friday, and that was after the heads of several education institutions agreed to it.
“There couldn’t be a more stunning indictment of your failure of leadership than this right here,” Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, told his colleagues. “This constitutes all that’s left of pension reform with the great Democrat majority that was finally going to solve this huge problem.”
Some of those early votes on difficult pension issues might haunt some politicians come election time. Quinn is among those who probably stands to lose the most. He’s brought up pensions at nearly every public appearance in the last year. But the lack of action could perpetuate claims from his critics that he has little sway at the Capitol.
The Chicago Democrat might see a challenge from within his own party as both Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — daughter of the House speaker — and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley mull runs.
Experts say the special session is risky.
“If he calls a special session without a deal being made, it’s just going to be more embarrassment,” said Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Quinn, who left Springfield without addressing reporters, issued a strong statement that he would continue the fight but could not do it alone.
After years of state underfunding and skipped payments, Illinois’ five public employee retirement systems are about $97 billion short of what’s needed to pay benefits. The full annual payment in 2014 will be about $6 billion — nearly one-fifth of the state’s general revenue fund.
“It should be a top priority before we do anything else. Everyone’s losing out,” said state Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican. “People are going to be hurt.”
Other issues that are expected to come back before lawmakers soon are same-sex marriage and a measure that would establish five new Illinois casinos.
The gambling measure fizzled out Friday after the sponsor said details, particularly those related to oversight of a Chicago casino, couldn’t get worked out.
The sponsor of a same-sex marriage bill, Democratic Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, told lawmakers late Friday he simply didn’t have the 60 votes he needed. He did promise to bring it back soon to give those undecided a chance to mull it over. The heart of the debate centered on members of the House Black Caucus, who are all Democrats but split or undecided on the issue.
“We will be back and we will be voting on this bill in this Legislature in this room,” Harris said. “Until that day I apologize to the families who were hoping to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state.”
Contact Sophia Tareen at https://www.twitter.com/sophiatareen .
Associated Press writer Kerry Lester contributed to this report.