Miller: Summertime, and only leaders need to be in Springfield
By Rich Miller www.thecapitolfaxblog.com June 3, 2012 7:40PM
Updated: July 7, 2012 8:07AM
At least for now, it doesn’t appear that rank-and-file legislators will have to spend much time in Springfield this summer — even though they failed to finish their work on pension reform last week.
Aides to Gov. Pat Quinn claim that they’ve learned from the mistakes of his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, and won’t drag legislators back to the Statehouse for a grueling overtime session to try to resolve the pension funding crisis, which has already overwhelmed the state budget.
Blagojevich convened numerous overtime sessions, and they were all divisive political circuses. Plus, forcing legislators back to Springfield to sit around and wait for the leaders to come to an agreement means they’ll have plenty of time on their hands to bad-mouth the governor to reporters, who won’t have much to do, either.
Quinn signaled his understanding of this dynamic in an official statement issued after it was apparent that pension reform was dead in the water in the spring session.
“I will convene a meeting with (Senate) President Cullerton, (Senate Minority) Leader Radogno, (House) Speaker Madigan and (House Minority) Leader Cross in the coming week so we can forge a pension reform agreement as soon as possible and return to Springfield to enact it into law,” Quinn said.
There’s really no need to convene the full General Assembly because the real problem here is a fundamental disagreement among the legislative leaders.
Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) is insisting on shifting teacher pension costs away from the state and onto downstate and suburban school districts. House and Senate Republican leaders are adamantly opposed to such cost shifting, saying it would substantially boost property tax bills and punish wealthier school districts that tend to have higher pay for educators.
Madigan handed off control of the pension reform package to Tom Cross (R-Oswego) earlier in the week and allowed the bill to be amended to strip out the cost-shifting language at the behest of the governor.
But the next day, the last day of the legislative session, Madigan let it be known that he would be voting against the bill. That was all it took for his members to jump off it as well.
House members from Chicago were among those against the bill. Some were told by Quinn aides that Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported the revised legislation, but the mayor’s Springfield crew never got the word to work for the proposal.
Emanuel has pushed hard for the cost-shifting plan, believing that it’s unfair for Chicago Public Schools to pay its full share of employee pension costs while school districts outside the city have the state cover most of those costs.
With Madigan opposed and Emanuel not working for the bill, it quickly became clear to the governor’s office that there was simply no way to pass it. Cross told the House that this would be a “summer issue” and that emotions needed a chance to cool down.
The Republicans (and downstate and suburban Democrats) are so completely against any talk of shifting pension costs to school districts — even if they’re phased in over several years — that the issue appears almost impossible to resolve.
But Madigan and Emanuel know that there’s probably no better vehicle to attach the idea to than the politically important issue of pension reform, so they’re not giving up, either. The solution might be getting more school more money for Chicago, perhaps in a way that gives additional cash to education in general.
Then again, there’s been little willingness on Madigan’s part to move forward with a highly controversial pension bill that riles up teachers before the Nov. 6 election, when all 177 seats in the Legislature are up for election, many in new districts.
State and university workers and retirees are mostly concentrated in pockets around the state, so their political impact on legislators is limited. But public schoolteachers and retirees are everywhere. And there are a lot of them. And they are very politically active.
The Senate showed last week that it can pass a pension reform bill when it approved changes to the State Employees Retirement System on what appeared to be a carefully structured roll call.
That reinforced the idea that bringing the entire General Assembly back to town for an extended stay this summer is both unnecessary and a bad idea. If the leaders can be put on the same page, then the members will undoubtedly follow.
Rich Miller also publishes
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