SPRINGFIELD – While Illinois Republicans have made solving the state’s pension crisis their issue for years, far fewer GOP lawmakers than expected supported the watershed package of reforms passed by the Legislature on Tuesday.
Only 15 House Republicans – a third of the 47-member caucus – voted for the $160 billion savings plan that was jointly crafted by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, as did 10 of the Senate’s 19 GOP members.
With at least one major campaign donor lobbying against the package and concerns about giving Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn a gift for his re-election campaign, Republican leaders in each chamber faced a challenge that grew more complicated as the vote neared. More Democrats, in turn, stepped forward to compensate, even though the plan was bitter medicine for unions representing state workers, their usual allies and campaign supporters.
“I think everyone feels unhappy about the choice we faced. I don’t think anybody felt there was joy in a yes vote,” said House Democratic Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie.
Now that the votes are cast, lawmakers face the consequences in the 2014 election campaign. While legislative leaders would have strategized how to protect vulnerable members from casting a difficult vote, the fallout could have impact on the balance of power in the General Assembly if Democrats sacrifice enough seats next year to lose their thin supermajorities in each chamber.
The overall Democratic majorities are considered safe given the state’s Democratic drawn political districts. But Democrats hold just slim, three-fifths supermajorities in the House, where they have 71 of 118 seats, and in the Senate, where they hold 40 of 59 seats, giving them veto-proof cushions to pass legislation. Those margins could become even more valuable if a Republican defeats Quinn next year.
“It wouldn’t surprise me for the Democrats to lose a few seats in the House,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, noting “the pension thing does not help.”
After years of inaction and delay in the General Assembly, the final vote in favor of pension reform offered some surprises.
Three of four GOP gubernatorial candidates, prominent members of the business community, as well U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, the state’s top elected Republican – all came out in opposition to the legislation, most saying it didn’t go far enough in saving the state money. That pressure posed a dilemma for House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who helped craft the plan but found fewer votes among his caucus than he expected.
The 15 House Republicans in favor was seven fewer than the number who supported a similar plan in the same chamber last spring.
Rep. Tom Cross, of Oswego, a former House GOP leader now running for state treasurer, was one unexpected no vote. Like others, he received calls from top campaign donors opposing the plan, but said he opposed it because “it didn’t fix the problem.”
The proposal would push back the retirement age for workers age 45 and under on a sliding scale. The current annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases for retirees would be replaced with smaller annual adjustments for the highest earners. Some workers would have the option of freezing their pension and starting a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan. The plan also guarantees funding for the state’s retirement systems.
Labor unions are expected to challenge the plan’s constitutionality.
In the end, House Speaker Michael Madigan’s Democrats provided 47 of the 62 votes needed for passage, requiring the support of liberal caucus members who had opposed earlier efforts because of union opposition.
For some of them, re-election now may be tougher. For instance, union officials already have said that first-term state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside may have lost future endorsements or contributions for his yes vote. Welch, who opposed earlier reform measures, is facing a primary challenge from Antoinette “Toni” Gray of Maywood, an insurance agency owner.
“It was probably the most difficult vote I’ve cast,” said Welch, a 12-year school board member. The deal, while not perfect, “was the right thing for Illinois,” he said.
Welch said Madigan personally called him about the plan. He said he read the entire 325-page bill Thanksgiving weekend, informing the speaker’s office of his support the night before Tuesday’s vote.
Madigan, Illinois’ Democratic Party chairman, can help lawmakers financially with re-election efforts, making up for loss of union support. But Redfield said he won’t easily replace the unions’ get-out-the-vote efforts.
On the Senate side, Democrats provided 20 of the 30 yes votes for the pension plan, after Republicans produced 10. Among the Republicans voting no was State Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, who has supported a number of pension reform proposals in the past. Dillard, now running for governor, said the plan didn’t go far enough.
Redfield said there are fewer Senate primary races for Democrats to worry about. Twelve members of their caucus are up for re-election next year.
But crucial to the new plan’s passage was the support of some Democratic senators from swing districts who risked future blowback either for inaction on pensions or being too tough on state employees. Two of them who voted yes were Sen. Julie Morrison of Deerfield and Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge. Neither is up for re-election next year.