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Gov. Quinn calls special session to solve pension mess — now what?

 Gov. PQuinn speaks City Club Chicago Maggiano’s  111 W. Grave. Monday July 30 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Gov. Pat Quinn speaks to the City Club of Chicago at Maggiano’s 111 W. Grand ave. Monday, July 30, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 1, 2012 6:10AM

SPRINGFIELD — By Gov. Pat Quinn’s measure, each day without solving Illinois’ $83 billion pension crisis means the problem keeps worsening to the tune of $12.6 million a day.

Do the math, and that comes to a sobering $720 million in new unfunded pension liabilities since lawmakers skipped town at the end of May without tackling pension reform, the governor’s No. 1 priority.

During a speech Monday before the City Club of Chicago, Quinn announced plans for a special legislative session Aug. 17 aimed at solving the state’s pension problem “once and for all.”

While the governor’s critics lauded him for taking the initiative and stopped short of ridiculing his move as a political stunt, virtually no one in or around the Capitol buys into Quinn’s apparent thinking that such a quick fix may be in the offing to a problem that took decades to create.

Instead, the emphasis is on the House and its uncertain plans for a watered-down pension-reform bill that passed the Senate in late May. If the House passed that proposal, it would generate headlines that the governor and General Assembly finally were addressing the pension problem, but the approach would fall well short of totally winnowing down what government employees have been told to expect during their retirements.

“It’s a great piece of politics, and beyond that it doesn’t do anything useful,” Tyrone Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, said of Quinn’s special-session push if the emphasis strictly is on taking up the Senate-passed plan and having it fail.

“It’s shameful if that’s what the game is,” said Fahner, whose group has pushed a variety of more comprehensive pension reforms.

But right now, that’s the way it looks.

The governor hasn’t brokered a deal with the four legislative leaders on what a pension package should look like and hasn’t brought them all together in about six weeks to try to hammer out an agreement.

Further complicating matters, the vote-threshold to pass a bill got even higher when the House and Senate couldn’t meet a May 31 deadline, and Republicans still want no part of making suburban and Downstate school systems shoulder part of the burden for the pension costs of their workforces as House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) wants.

And Senate President John Cullerton balked at even calling his chamber back for a special session, calling it a waste of taxpayers money since the Senate already passed a reform measure during the regular session and the cost of paying legislative per diems could reach $40,000 a day.

It all adds up to the probability of continued stalemate and the prospect of $1.8 billion in new unfunded liabilities by next January, when the smart money in Springfield has lawmakers taking their next meaningful stab at pension reform. Voting thresholds drop back then to simple majorities in the House and Senate, rather than three-fifths majorities where both Democratic and Republican votes matter.

The situation Quinn set into motion Monday is not entirely unlike what played out when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich kept calling lawmakers back into special session to bully them into passing a multibillion-dollar capital construction plan that no one trusted him enough to administer. At one point, Blagojevich had 17 special sessions going on at one time and never succeeded in getting what he wanted.

Quinn, of course, is no Blagojevich. He’s used his special-session powers just once before. But his strategy this time, at least now, seems headed for the same result as under his predecessor.

The Illinois House was scheduled to be in session Aug. 17 anyway to deal with the political future of state Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago), the West Side lawmaker who allegedly accepted a $7,000 bribe in a tradeoff with an undercover FBI informant for supporting a $50,000 state grant to a fictitious daycare center operator.

The odds of Smith being expelled from the House that day appear far better than the governor tossing some kind of legislative Hail Mary that would reduce pension benefits for existing state workers and suburban and Downstate school teachers, whose retirement kitties are protected by the state Constitution.

Enticing public employees to relinquish guaranteed 3-percent-a-year pension boosts in retirement in exchange for keeping state-subsidized health insurance was one attempt to answer the constitutional questions of cutting pension benefits because it made government workers make a choice — albeit a Hobson’s choice — on giving up their lucrative cost-of-living increases as retirees.

But the GOP balked at the plan after Madigan insisted that the package also force suburban and Downstate school districts to contribute to the pensions of their workforces, a move the GOP characterized as a $20 billion property-tax increase on suburbanites and Downstaters. On Monday, Quinn advocated giving school districts 12 years to phase in their shares of pension costs.

The deadlock caused the plan to blow apart on the final night of the spring session in May and prompted the Senate to send the House a last-second Plan B in legislation that would cover only workers under the governor’s authority and members of the General Assembly and leave suburban and Downstate teachers and university employees out of the mix.

Right now, that’s the only plan really in play in the House when they return with the Senate on Aug. 17.

Madigan was out of state Monday so his spokesman wouldn’t shed any light on the speaker’s plans for allowing a vote on that bill or any other approach.

But approving it won’t be simple because unlike in May, it’ll require a super majority to pass to take effect immediately. That means 71 House votes, instead of the usual 60 that are required between January and June, are needed to send the measure onto Quinn.

Politically, the math simply doesn’t seem to work.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) has offered to provide 30 votes on the Senate-crafted pension plan, leaving Madigan to come up with the other 41 votes during prime vacation time for what ostensibly is only a half-a-loaf pension package that no one really embraces as the end-all, be-all answer to pension reform and that is sure to spur lengthy litigation from unions over its constitutionality.

The governor “picked a Friday in the middle of the summer in the middle of the State Fair, and I think it’ll be difficult to get the number of people there he needs, special session or no,” said Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), a key member of Madigan’s leadership team. “Unless there’s an agreement in advance that something is going to move, I don’t see how after we do the Smith thing — let’s say it’s 12 or 1 on a Friday afternoon — we will have the time to negotiate and pass a huge important bill like this.”

State Sen. Dan Kotowski (R-Park Ridge), who in recent days has prodded Madigan to call the Senate-crafted pension bill for a vote, said the package deserves backing from both parties in the House, just as it got in the Senate.

“The fact is I think there are people on both sides of the political aisle interested in passing meaningful pension reform. This legislation will save taxpayers an estimated $31 billion, so it’s significant, and its meaningful,” he said. “Thirty-one billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at.”

Cross and his Senate counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), issued a statement full of read-between-the-lines language Monday that underscored how far away any kind of deal really is between the governor and legislative leaders, particularly the Republicans.

Their joint response to Quinn’s special-session call lauded him for calling lawmakers back into session but spoke for the need for “comprehensive” pension reform, not anything piecemeal. Their statement didn’t show any willingness to back off their demands that suburban and Downstate school systems be spared from having to foot more of the pension bill.

Their statement also urged Quinn to take a “leadership role” on the issue. In his special-session call, aside from talking more about a 12-year phase-in for school districts, Quinn didn’t openly advocate for a pension solution that was radically different from what he put on the table in April, a plan that didn’t take flight before the final hours of the Legislature’s spring session ticked away.

Ironically, before the House adjourned May 31, Madigan warned his members that they may be called back sometime this summer to deal with pensions. But he offered what then — and now — seemed like a peculiar insight, though one that matters to the entrenched rank-and-file.

If the governor called them back into session, Madigan said in his floor speech, they’d receive their $110 housing and food allowance. If they were ordered back by the speaker or Senate president, Madigan said their major expenses in Springfield would go unreimbursed. Those are the time-honored rules of engagement at the Capitol.

So with the Aug. 17 special session on pensions less than three weeks away, the only certainty now is that legislators at least in the House will be getting their per diems — all of them, except perhaps Derrick Smith.

By the time the governor’s big pension debate gets underway after his expulsion vote, Smith probably will be on the unemployment line, awaiting his federal corruption trial.

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