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Article posted: 6/4/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Finish the unfinished pension problem

By

What's done is done. And what was not done is not done.

It must be done soon.

We speak, of course, of the Illinois Legislature's failure to fix the state's suffocating pension crisis. The General Assembly adjourned its spring session last Thursday without addressing the tons of weight that amounts to the nation's worst pension debt at $83 billion dragging the state down.

Tempers and gamesmanship dominated in an election year when Democrats need their union base, and the timeworn practice of pitting regions of the state against one another again won the day. But let there be no mistake: if this pension crisis isn't fixed responsibly soon, we all will lose even more.

We are not surprised, but are bitterly disappointed to already see the Illinois House Republicans use this bipartisan failure as a campaign fundraising tool and an attempt to demonize House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. Sadly, we are sure, Democrats also have or will use the stalemate as campaign fodder. Likewise, it was pathetic to witness Democrats fall like lemmings off a strong effort at a pension fix only after Madigan let it be known last Thursday that he would not be voting for the compromise.

But we find no solace nor purpose in belaboring the blamesmanship. Every legislator and the governor failed last week, period. And every one of them must be committed to a solution soon. Every one of us is affected, directly or indirectly, and must be committed and engaged in finding a responsible solution as soon as possible.

We have been frequent critics of Gov. Pat Quinn over the years, but on the major issues of this spring -- Medicaid spending, gambling and pensions -- he has had the proper approach and has demonstrated leadership.

Governor, you fell short last week, but do not back down. You are right to meet with legislative leaders and you would be right to force a long session this summer if that is what it takes.

The facts are these: If no solution is found, legislators will be forced to meet next year to approve ever more draconian cuts to social services for the poor and needy, to education, to public safety. If no real solution is found soon, the New York bond houses will drop our bond ratings, making it even more difficult for Illinois to borrow money. And that, in turn, will affect all manner of public projects, spending and job creation that will have ramifications for all.

There was some strong groundwork laid here. Current and future retirees were to choose between keeping an annual cost of living raise on their pensions and losing their retiree health care benefits, or taking a cut in the annual cost-of-living amount. Frankly, we believe many, if not most, private workers in Illinois have endured cuts in pay and benefits far greater than these.

We agree that there needs to be more accountability on the part of suburban and downstate school boards that have been raising salaries at the end of careers with no regard for the burden on the pension system, but shifting costs onto those boards even over five or six years for a problem that has been decades in the making is too much too soon. We'd like to know more about the financial impact of a GOP offer to make school boards pay the pension impact of those end-of-year raises.

It's clear that a new solution to this very dangerous pension gap will require pain and sacrifice from every single affected worker and taxpayer in Illinois. It will require steely will and determined leadership from Quinn and the four legislative leaders. And it will take courage from plenty of legislators in competitive races in November. Make no mistake. It cannot be avoided and it must not wait. Get done now what remains undone.

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