Reeder: Quinn’s pension commission a desperately bad idea
By Scott Reeder January 17, 2013 7:10PM
In this Jan. 8, 2013 photo, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is surrounded by reporters after testifying at a House committee hearing on pension reform at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield Ill. Quinn suffered perhaps the worst fallout from this week's lame-duck session which ended with no action on the $96 billion problem, including his last-ditch effort to form a pension commission that wasn't even called for a vote. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: February 19, 2013 1:51PM
We keep looking for leadership, and we keep ending up with politics.
How else can we explain Gov. Pat Quinn’s desperate move in the waning hours of this month’s lame-duck session of the Legislature?
Quinn wanted legislators to delegate their power to a special commission that would make the difficult decisions regarding reforming the state’s pension systems to reduce their estimated $96 billion long-term liability.
Silly me, I thought we elected lawmakers to make tough decisions. But apparently not everyone sees it that way.
A House committee approved Quinn’s proposal to create the pension commission, which would have eight members appointed by the leaders of the House and Senate.
Members of the commission would serve life appointments, and their decisions would be final as long as both chambers of the Legislature didn’t vote to overrule them.
In other words, the Legislature could avoid the political dynamite that is the pension issue and let members of the commission take all the political heat for whatever reforms it decided on.
Fortunately, the plan never came up for a vote in the General Assembly. I guess we should be reassured by that.
But it’s frightening that our governor would back a plan that would have stripped voters of their say.
After all, voters always can boot a legislator from office during the next election, but there is no way for them to hold a group of unelected commissioners accountable.
Quinn likes to mention that he was born on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. He fancies himself as an advocate for grass-roots democracy.
And he has a track record of leading grass-roots political causes, most notably the successful drive in 1980 in which voters strongly approved the “cutback amendment” to the state constitution — reducing the size of the House by a third, from 177 members to 118.
In 1985, Quinn personally sued the state, arguing that a commission of unelected individuals that would determine pay raises for lawmakers was unconstitutional. He lost the case, but his efforts then were praiseworthy.
But where was that Pat Quinn this month? Using the case that he lost as a legal precedent for creating a similar commission to deal with the pension crisis.
Has the man no shame?
This unelected commission would have had the power to radically reshape one of the largest items in the state budget — and also the authority to raise taxes on its own.
The idea scared a lot of people, including government employee unions and free-market policy groups.
As well it should have.
After all, we have a republican form of government through which we elect our lawmakers. They are supposed to be accountable to us, the citizenry.
To create a commission to make really tough decisions such as pension reform with little to no oversight defies the democratic principles on which this nation was founded.
Imagine George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry sitting around the Continental Congress and saying: “Hey, this liberty thing is hard. Let’s just appoint an unelected, unaccountable monarch and have him make the tough decisions for us.”
Oh wait, that’s what they were trying to get rid of.
But that is exactly the approach that Quinn took to try to get some action on addressing the state’s crippling pension costs.
At a critical time for Illinois, when the state so badly needs strong political leadership, it got something less.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.