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posted: 11/18/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Lame ducks and lines they should not cross

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Later this month and again early next year, the Illinois legislature is expected to tackle some of the state's most critical and vexing problems, even before the newly elected General Assembly is seated Jan. 9.

Gambling, cuts to teacher retirement benefits and a proposal to make local school districts pay more for pension costs will be among the legislation awaiting a decision.

And they could be addressed by a lame-duck General Assembly, when outgoing state representatives and senators will cast their votes without fear of being held accountable by taxpayers.

Lame-duck sessions are part of the process, and we don't expect the wheels of government to grind to a halt as we wait for the changing of the guard of elected officials. However, some issues are too important to taxpayers and the state's fragile finances to be decided by lawmakers who, inasmuch as they will not return to the next General Assembly, may not have to account for their actions to voters.

After all, it was under similar circumstances in the early days of 2011 when lame-duck lawmakers helped approve a huge income tax hike, and some were rewarded with state jobs afterward.

"It's no surprise that the Democrats have set an aggressive schedule for the lame-duck session," House Republican Leader Tom Cross said. "This has traditionally been a time for legislative mischief."

Even though many of the lame ducks this time around will be Republicans, we have similar worries in the coming sessions as well. One key concern is the contentious debate surrounding the state's more than $90 million in pension debt, an amount that has risen steadily while the debate over how to resolve it has worn on for years. In the late-November veto session and a lame-duck session scheduled Jan. 3, votes on controversial proposals could be easier for special interests to find and harder for voters to punish.

About 35 lawmakers out of 177 lost their elections Nov. 6 or did not run. Those lawmakers won't have to face constituents again or answer for a vote that would rile state employees, unions, taxpayer groups or other special interests.

Of particular concern is a proposal to have suburban and downstate schools pay for their teachers' retirement costs, a critical part of the agreement on the table that would cut retirees' annual benefit increases in exchange for guaranteeing to help them with health care. It is a proposal Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has supported and Republicans have opposed.

Considering that Democrats in the next General Assembly will have an even tighter grip than currently, many speculate a pension vote won't happen at least until the Jan. 3 lame-duck session, when a simple majority can decide legislation, or even after the new legislature is seated Jan. 9. But in periods of uncertainty, it's necessary to pay close attention.

As urgent as pension reform is, premature or hasty actions are risks neither taxpayers nor school districts already overburdened by questionable decision-making in Springfield can afford to take. Shifting millions of dollars in pension payments to local school districts is an act fraught with too many potentially painful consequences to be undertaken as an isolated measure. It needs extensive debate in, as we've said many times, the framework of a full-fledged package of reforms.

And it is not alone. Almost any issue can arise in the coming sessions before Jan. 9. Here's hoping that those that do are decided by lawmakers who can be held to account for the votes they cast.

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