SPRINGFIELD — Big changes are coming to the Illinois Capitol after last week’s election, possibly setting the stage for resolving contentious issues like pension cuts and gambling expansion within the next few months.
Illinois leaders could be looking toward the first weeks of January to try to push through cuts to teachers’ retirement benefits, a proposal to make local school districts pay more for pensions costs, or both.
The state has more than $90 billion in pension debt, and the annual payments rise every year, leaving the state with less money to spend on schools, health care, parks and prisons.
Cutting benefits has been a controversial debate that’s worn on for years, But now, votes could be easier to find in the state legislature.
About 35 lawmakers out of Illinois’ 177 lost their elections Tuesday or retired and did not run. That number isn’t likely to be nearly as high again for at least 10 years, when redistricting again will reshuffle the legislative deck. Because those lawmakers won’t be facing voters again, they might have less concern for the political ramifications of a vote that would rile state employees and unions.
Gov. Pat Quinn said last week he wants lawmakers to tackle pensions before new lawmakers take their seats Jan. 9, meaning the large number of lame ducks could be asked to help. In the early days of 2011, lame duck lawmakers helped approve an income tax hike, and some were rewarded with state jobs afterward.
“Getting into this challenge took 70 years. In the next 70 days, we’ve got to work together in bipartisan cooperation, in a practical way, to solve a big problem that’s afflicting our state budget,” Quinn said.
Suburban lawmakers on the front lines of the pensions debate say the general outlines of existing proposals are still in play: Cut retirees’ annual benefit increases in exchange for guaranteeing to help them with health care costs and consider shifting millions of dollars of pension payments onto local school districts.
Unions are expected to continue to fight the pension cuts hard as they’ve done all year and would almost certainly sue to block benefit reductions even if lawmakers can agree to them.
But at the Capitol, it’s the potential harm to suburban and downstate school districts that is widely seen as holding up a pension deal.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, the powerful Chicago Democrat, has made it clear he thinks having local schools pay for their teachers’ retirements is a critical part of the agreement.
Republicans, in particular, have opposed it, and it’s unclear if they’ll budge. State Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat, wonders if dozens of Republican defeats across Illinois on election night might change that.
“You would hope that they would be more cooperative,” Noland said. “We’re going to take inventory on where everybody is.”
State Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican, said her party is largely ready to agree with the benefit cuts. But moving pension costs to local school districts still leaves a lot of unanswered questions, she said.
Lawmakers return to Springfield Nov. 27 for two weeks before a holiday break, and while parliamentary rules make that period less attractive for dealing with pensions, the controversial plan to put slot machines at Arlington Park and new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and elsewhere could be settled then.
Lawmakers could try to send Quinn a compromise deal or override his veto from earlier this year.
State Sen. Terry Link said he started getting calls about the issue the day after the election.
“We’re looking at it. There’s no doubt about that,” Link said.
Some clarity might come in the coming weeks as lawmakers recover from the election and prepare to debate issues in Springfield.
“It’s no surprise that the Democrats have set an aggressive schedule for the lame duck session,” House Republican Leader Tom Cross said in a statement. “This has traditionally been a time for legislative mischief.”
Ÿ The Associated Press contributed to this report.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.