Whether or not lawmakers meet Gov. Pat Quinn's Wednesday deadline for passing a pension reform plan, word from Springfield offers us real hope that meaningful reform can happen eventually.|
A House panel on Monday began vetting a bill designed to start plugging Illinois' more than $95 billion pension hole. It was minus a controversial plan to shift the costs of pensions for downstate and suburban Chicago teachers from the state to local school districts.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, showed the kind of leadership Illinoisans have been begging for when he surrendered, at least temporarily, on the demand that all local schools absorb the costs of future teacher retirement benefits.
The shift was considered a deal-breaker by most lawmakers from outside Chicago and for good reason. They feared that the plan would dump responsibility for unsustainable pensions onto local schools and property taxpayers who had little to do with creating the crisis.
Speaker Madigan and other backers of the cost shift have said it is a question of fairness. After all, they say, Chicago taxpayers must bear the full cost of benefits for their school district retirees while also paying the price for teacher pensions in the suburbs and downstate.
They're right. It isn't fair to Chicagoans. But critics of the cost shift, including this page, have worried about giving local property taxpayers outside Chicago full responsibility for pensions, particularly if there is little done to begin to address their huge and growing cost.
Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, has wisely steered the conversation regarding pensions away from the blame game. "It's been my goal throughout this entire process not to place blame, whether it's blame as to how we got here, blame as to why this isn't getting done," the Associated Press quoted her as saying.
Abandoning the cost-shift provision helps to do that without, it seems to us, lessening the impact of the aggressive package of reforms that she and a group of other House lawmakers have been championing. Indeed, given that, by their own estimate, the cost shift represented just 3 percent of the overall savings they envisioned, the cost to abandon it seems negligible.
The bill that came out of Rep. Nekritz's House Personnel and Pensions panel Monday remains an aggressive one and, consequently, obstacles to its approval are steep. It goes much further, for example, than state employee unions have said they are willing to go to fix the mess. And Senate President John Cullerton has in the past fretted about the constitutionality of aggressive changes in pensions for current teachers and retirees. So what will happen over the next 24 hours regarding cost of living cuts, raising the retirement age and others changes now contained in SB 1673 is anyone's guess. Indeed, this all may be too much for lawmakers to handle in the short window the governor has suggested.
But failure to reach a deal before the new General Assembly is seated on Wednesday should not automatically be considered a failure.
The fact that House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, and Speaker Madigan may have found common ground on anything, let alone a pension reform deal, is more than encouraging, it's astounding.
The governor, too, appears to have been up to more than merely promoting gimmicks like Squeezy the Pension Python. While Gov. Quinn has been dead right on the need to fix a problem that is growing by $17 million a day, we're among those who has criticized him for not offering a detailed plan for fixing it. According to his spokesman, however, the governor has been an active participant in the current negotiations that resulted in SB 1673.
It is the kind of cooperative attention that the crisis has been begging for. Now, let's keep our fingers crossed.