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posted: 1/12/2012 5:00 AM

Quinn's initiative to reform pensions

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

While we're not naive, we are encouraged by Gov. Pat Quinn's initiative to build a bipartisan solution to the state's public pension problems.

In announcing the creation of a panel to address the issue, Quinn said earlier this week that he is committed to reforming the system "once and for all" this spring.

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"This is a major mountain to climb this year and I'm willing to lead the expedition," Quinn said. "That's exactly what we're going to do. We're going to get this done once and for all."

We don't question the governor's intent; in fact, we laud it.

But we do question his optimism and his typical hyperbole. He has cavalierly predicted fait-accompli progress on major issues in the past, frequently underestimating their complexity and the obstacles to success; often, those predictions turned out to be wishful thinking rather than reality.

And certainly, the obstacles to solving the state's pension problems are large and numerous and the issues involved in the retirement systems are filled with complexity.

But give the governor his due. The pension problem is central to the state's even larger budget problem and one doesn't get fixed without the other. We're pleased that Quinn recognizes this and that he's going to attempt to push the agenda on the issue.

As Tom Cross, the House Republican leader from Oswego, told The Associated Press, "I hope it's real. I hope it's not something for delay purposes, but real and substantive and not nibbling around the edges and saying, 'This is pension reform.'"

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, told AP, "It's been a priority and will continue to be a priority" and rightly pointed out that "There have been pretty significant changes."

That is certainly true. A reform law took effect a year ago that raised the retirement age for new employees and put a ceiling on their total pensions.

But much more needs to be done. Even with that reform, the state's contributions to its five retirement plans is consuming a progressively larger and larger portion of the state budget.

The problems, as we see it, have been twofold: 1) A system that has been generous beyond the resources of the state to maintain; and 2) A lack of fiscal discipline by the legislature to stay on top of the payments the system was due.

A solution has to address both problems.

But to get there, we believe the pension reform panel needs representation not just from the legislative branches. Union representation is vital; tax watchdog participation is vital.

And one more thing: A constructive and prevailing mood of compromise and problem solving is essential.

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