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Miller: They’re in control, but Dems can’t agree on pension reform

Updated: April 12, 2013 6:23AM



Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was hoping Thursday to avoid the same dismal results as the previous week when he presented some new, and harsh, pension reform ideas.

The week before, one of his pension proposals received just one vote, his own. None of his other proposals got more than five votes.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. Members of his leadership team thought some of those amendments would get at least a few dozen votes. Oops.

Making matters worse, the House Republicans refused to participate in the process, with not a single member voting up, down or “present” on Madigan’s amendments.

Asked on Wednesday’s “Illinois Lawmakers” television program about the GOP’s refusal to vote, Madigan (D-Chicago) said the Republicans had made a “mistake.”

“They’re elected,” Madigan told host Jak Tichenor. “And their electors tell them to come here and vote. They don’t tell them to come here and not participate.”

The Republicans have said their refusal to vote was in protest over Madigan running so-called “gotcha” amendments that were designed solely to make them look bad and provide fodder for negative advertising campaigns.

But in reality, the GOP is going to get zinged no matter what. Refusing to vote on a series of controversial bills easily could be turned into a nasty ad program.

Last week, however, party discipline cracked a little when two House Republicans broke ranks and voted for a Madigan-sponsored amendment to cap the “pensionable” income of government workers at Social Security’s taxable income cap.

That means no further pension benefits can be earned by a state employee making more than $113,000, or whatever Social Security sets the level at in the future.

Reps. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights) and David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) both voted “yes” on the amendment, while all other Republicans refused to vote.

McSweeney also voted “yes” on two other Madigan amendments — freezing cost-of-living raises for 10 years and requiring active employees to chip in an extra 4 percent of their pay for their pensions.

Like the week before, when Madigan introduced similarly extreme measures, those two amendments got just a few votes.

A more comprehensive pension reform plan sponsored by state Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) and House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) is expected to move through a committee this week.

But don’t expect a floor vote any time soon. Cross’ people said publicly that they have 30 votes for the bill, but some insiders are saying otherwise, with one claiming that the number is more like 20. The Democrats may not even have that many.

While the Democrats have a super-majority in the House, they aren’t closer to passing a major pension reform bill now than in the past. Most Democratic legislators by nature just don’t like the idea of forcing cuts on retirees or making them pay more for health insurance or slapping workers with higher pension payments.

And to see how this pension reform problem is stacking up, you might want to take a look at last week’s roll call on a bill to allow people convicted of drug-related felonies to get cash from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The bill received 36 “yes” votes, with 80 voting “no.” The roll call provides a pretty good road map for where the real liberals are in the House. The “yes” votes were generally the folks who would be far less willing to cut retiree pensions and to favor alternative solutions such as tax increases and placing the burden on the affluent.

So, doing something like capping pensionable income at $113,000 per year makes sense to most of those more liberal Democrats. Just two members who voted for the TANF drug felony bill voted against the income cap.

Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) was one of them, for obvious reasons. She has lots of highly paid University of Illinois employees in her district.

“My sense of the attitude of the members of the Legislature is that they’re not yet ready to take this difficult step (voting for pension reform),” Madigan said on Tichenor’s program, adding that he’s holding the pension votes to “better educate the members of the House and the Senate.”

The bottom line is that it’s going to be a while before legislators are “educated” enough to get to a resolution of this very thorny pension issue.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.



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