Miller: Many lawmakers see no need for special session
By Rich Miller www.thecapitolfaxblog.com August 5, 2012 6:30PM
Updated: September 7, 2012 6:11AM
Gov. Pat Quinn’s office flatly denies it, but it’s hard to see how his big announcement about calling a special legislative session on pension reform wasn’t at least partially related to a major Chicago TV station’s special report on the same subject a few hours after his proclamation.
WGN-TV broadcast a lengthy documentary, “Pension Games,” during its 9 p.m. news program, then hosted a live discussion afterward on its CLTV cable television station along with an interview with the governor.
The station hyped the program for days, and Quinn took clear advantage of the public relations opportunity to promote himself — even taking an opportunity to whack the General Assembly for cutting the schools budget after receiving a viewer call-in question about how pension reform would impact his property tax bill.
Many legislators, mostly Republicans but some Democrats, including Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), have complained about Quinn calling a special session without having a plan in place or a bill to vote on. Cullerton has described the session as a waste of time and money because lawmakers are highly unlikely to vote on anything substantial until after the Nov. 6 election.
The governor’s office countered that the state can’t afford to wait that long and that Quinn would be happy with just about any plan currently on the table. His people pointed to his decision to push for a 12-year phase-in of the controversial “cost-shifting” plan, which would force suburban and downstate school districts to pick up their employees’ pension costs and is a major impediment to an agreement on pensions.
The Republicans have steadfastly opposed that proposal, saying it would greatly increase homeowners’ tax bills. The House Democrats months ago proposed a longer phase-in of the cost shift, and Quinn has now thrown his support behind that timetable.
“I did my mighty best to get it done by May 31,” Quinn claimed about comprehensive pension reform during the TV program after a caller complained about the cost of bringing legislators back to Springfield for a special session. He said the urgency in solving the state’s pension mess left him no choice but to call a special session for Aug. 17.
Cullerton asked Quinn to rescind his special session order, offering to call a session on his own, which would avoid the additional stipend pay to legislators (the session will cost about $40,000 per day). But the governor has refused to go along, possibly because doing so would mean he would look less like a champion of pension reform.
Quinn has an effective counter-argument to complaints about the cost of a special session. He claims that doing nothing on pensions inflates the five systems’ unfunded liability by $12.6 million every day. That number has been seized upon by the media, but it’s not exactly true.
No pension bill on the table would change benefit plans immediately, and the pension systems have asked that any new legislation not take effect until July 1, 2013. So that $12.6 million will continue to accrue no matter what happens during the special session.
But as long as the media buy fully into Quinn’s argument, then that cost of $40,000 per day will pale in comparison to his warning about pension debt rising $12.6 million every day.
Quinn obviously believes he has public opinion behind him on this one, although some Democrats have pointed to polls that show Quinn is very unpopular in many districts they’ve surveyed this summer. They also say pension reform proposals aren’t nearly as popular in politically targeted, Democratic-leaning districts as they may be statewide. There’s not much incentive for Democrats to go along with Quinn on this one, at least not yet.
But even if the public was totally with him, the public doesn’t vote in special sessions, legislators do. And members of his party aren’t exactly enamored with the guy. Quinn closed state facilities in Democratic districts and ignored pleas by the Black and Hispanic caucuses to keep the women’s prison at Dwight open so families in Cook County would remain relatively close to the inmates.
And in taking a page out of his predecessor’s playbook, Quinn has lately taken to bashing legislators for not toeing his line. On another TV program last week, he said legislators might have to cancel their golf games to attend his special session. Quinn was speaking, but I could clearly hear Rod Blagojevich talking.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.