The Illinois House's swift and unexpected approval last week of a pension reform proposal wasn't quite the stunning breakthrough that produced the two-tier public pension system in 2010, but the impact of that action and its message cannot be discounted.
Lawmakers are starting to appear serious.
No, we're not there yet, and, yes, the House action to limit cost-of-living increases to teacher and state worker pension benefits came just one day after the Senate rejected pension benefit cuts. But the strong House showing -- a 66-50 vote -- followed by encouraging remarks by Speaker Michael Madigan offered real hope that the two-week legislative break could indeed, as state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said, "let people back out of their entrenched positions and see another way" when they all return to Springfield next month.
The barrier of entrenched positions is no small one for this heavily politicized crisis. It can rise up at the most unexpected times -- as it did Tuesday when businessman and presumed gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner lashed out at Gov. Pat Quinn for insisting on ironclad guarantees that the state adhere to its obligations in whatever solution emerges. Considering that the state's shorted and skipped payments were a key contributor to the near-$100 billion pension shortfall, it's hard to imagine how Quinn's remarks could be perceived as anything but emphasizing the obvious. Yet, Rauner somehow found a way to see someone vowing to keep the state's promises as "a lackey to the government union bosses."
But political barriers can be overcome -- again, sometimes from the most unexpected corners. Witness here the three-year AFSCME contract Quinn negotiated that produced minimal raises for government workers and health care concessions large enough to save the state at least half a billion dollars.
On pensions, the unions still have some distance to travel to get beyond proposals that so far have relied mostly on higher taxes. But they've shown they are capable of making the journey. With the House's latest action leading the way, maybe even they will come around and acknowledge the need to share in the sacrifices everyone will have to make in order to clean up the pension mess.
To this point, the Senate's "entrenched position" has been a steadfast conviction that the House proposals cannot pass constitutional muster. That's no insignificant fear. But insofar as almost any solution but a tax hike appears headed for court scrutiny, it also doesn't need to stand in the way of a reasonable compromise.
The House took an important step when it acknowledged that compromise must include COLA limits. The governor made an important point when he emphasized the state must keep its promises. Let's hope all the legislative leaders can take us the rest of the way when they get back to work next month.