SPRINGFIELD—— Hours after lawmakers headed home without reforming the state's bereft public worker pension systems, Gov. Pat Quinn implored them to remember that Illinois government is "racing the clock" in solving the issue.
But a different race is on the mind of many legislators: their re-election contests Nov. 6, when all 59 Senate seats and all 118 House seats are on the ballot.
The coming election looms as a major driver in why pension reform failed this spring. The reasons are as much political as practical.
Concerns over alienating powerful voting blocs weighed on the minds of some. A belief that Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan didn't want to offend powerful labor unions swayed others. And Quinn and House Republican leader Tom Cross aren't exactly two of the most beloved figures at the Capitol.
The Democratic governor cast his lot with Republican Cross instead of Democrat Madigan, who wanted further concessions on who pays for teacher retirement outside Chicago. Cross' pension plan would have reduced cost-of-living increases and dangled an offer of access to state health insurance for those who opted for a lesser pension. It did not address the contentious issue of shifting teacher retirement costs from the state to suburban and downstate school districts.
Quinn then failed to deliver Democratic votes for Cross. In the aftermath, he downplayed election-year considerations.
"There may be a legislator here or there who looked at Nov. 6," Quinn said, "but I think most of the legislators of both parties in both houses understood the pension challenges could not be deferred."
But the pension challenges were deferred. Quinn is now pushing for top legislators to get together this week to reach a deal that can be presented to lawmakers in a special session in Springfield, but many lawmakers said privately they want to deal with the issue after the fall election.
"I'm not sure there's a need to rush this. We want to get it done right," said one Republican lawmaker with a state-run facility in his downstate district who asked that his name not be used to avoid conflicting with Cross' goals.
Shortly before House lawmakers left Springfield to start the summer campaign season, Madigan, the state's longest-serving speaker, said he was disappointed they failed to deal with Illinois' unsustainable and massive $83 billion pension system debt.
"However, I think we should all recognize there were significant accomplishments in this session," Madigan said, offering up some campaign talking points that lawmakers could use to try to spin discussions away from the pension issue.
Madigan also informed lawmakers that if they're called back this summer to deal with pension reform, they should hope Quinn makes the call instead of the legislative leaders. "If the governor calls the special session, why the members will get their per diem allowance" of more than $100 a day, Madigan said.
With Democrats running the House and Senate, there had been questions all along about whether the Legislature would tackle the state's pension crisis. The retirement system is eating up more and more state dollars at the expense of money for education and health care. Failure to address the large unfunded liability risks a further downgrade in the state's credit rating, which would lead to higher borrowing costs.
Fueling the belief that nothing would happen on the issue was Madigan's move on the eve of adjournment to turn over sponsorship of the comprehensive pension reform bill to Cross. The Oswego GOP leader said he had half the votes needed to pass the measure, but when Madigan said he would vote against it, Quinn came up short trying to gather Democratic votes.
Public employee unions, such as theAmerican Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, are one of the core constituencies of Democrats. Though overall union membership is declining in the private workplace, a recent study found 96 percent of all Illinois state government workers are unionized.
That relationship may explain why Springfield never became a ground zero for highly visible union protests. This stands in contrast to the way that Madison, Wis., about 280 miles to the north, found its Statehouse last year a rally center for unions trying to fight Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led Legislature's moves to abolish most collective bargaining rights.
To be sure, public unions used automated telephone calls and other devices to have members call Illinois lawmakers, and pockets of green T-shirt clad AFSCME workers roamed the halls of the Capitol. But their public displays rarely approached the more than 1,000 union employees who protested Walker's recent appearance in Springfield before the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce.
"I believe many union officials are so comfortable and used to Illinois Democrats doing their bidding that they thought in the end — and apparently rightfully so — nothing meaningful with respect to pension reform would take place," said Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale.
Michael Carrigan, president of the IllinoisAFL-CIO, said public workers unions sought to make their appeals directly to the General Assembly rather than engage in public protests. He said the Legislature's decision to defer the issue should prompt lawmakers to give organized labor a seat at the negotiating table.
Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, said the unions apparently adopted a tactic that "gave us grace in that they didn't all show up on the same day" to lobby.
"We all have to be honest with ourselves. What can they honestly be happy and live with?" Lightford asked.
Just how long it will take Quinn and legislative leaders to put together a negotiated pension proposal is questionable. Quinn now insists that lawmakers negotiate the tricky issue of shifting teacher pension costs back to local school districts.
"The core principle of having every unit of government that negotiates a contract, has retirement costs in that, that government has to have some accountability," Quinn said.
As of now, there's only the realization that among lawmakers, their predecessors and administrations from both parties, "a promise has been broken," said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine.
"There's an $83 billion elephant in this pension room, and I don't think you can look the people in the eye who are counting on it and continue to tell them, 'Don't worry,'" Murphy said.