Assigning blame for the ultimate failure of the spring legislative session is easy. There is so much to go around. Same for generating outrage. It bubbles and pops like hot cooking oil at every reflection on the immensity of our problems and the discarded opportunities of the past five months.
It must be said that failure to achieve comprehensive pension reform is a disappointment that overarches all else coming out of this term, no matter how well favored or despised. That in five months lawmakers could not agree to a meaningful solution to a problem that has been discussed almost incessantly for two years or more is beyond comprehension.
That they found themselves in the last 24 hours of session still debating not only that monumental topic but also gun control, education spending, gambling, gay marriage, a Peotone airport, drone surveillance, of all things, and a host of other less-prominent issues, including a mind-blowingly wasteful and parochial proposal creating an election commission in Lake County, is a stunning condemnation of the management of government in Springfield.
But there it is. The focus now must be in finding something productive to do that goes beyond assigning blame or expressing anger.
On pensions, that job begins with considering the failures of the two pension plans that managed to get legislative traction. Opponents attacked the so-called Madigan plan approved in the House for a shaky constitutionality and for doing too much. For their part, that plan's supporters opposed the Senate's competing union-backed plan for doing too little.
Is the answer, then, somewhere in the middle? Hardly. The state simply cannot survive an approach that doesn't ease its budget crisis, so any pension solution must of necessity lean toward the systemic reorganization and the hundreds of billions in savings envisioned in the Madigan plan. Proponents of both approaches may have to show some movement, but it's the supporters of the Senate plan who have the greater distance to travel and the greater burden.
They fostered a plan that saved comparatively little on the strength of an argument that placed self-interest and constitutional semantics over the financial future of the state. Voters who care about both the viability of the public-employee retirement system and the financial health of Illinois need to take note of the obstructions this camp put up to real reform.
And note, too, that it's not like it's impossible for lawmakers to reach accord on divisive issues. The compromise reached to permit oil and gas exploration in Illinois through hydraulic fracturing may be a textbook example for involving diverse, often competing interests in the construction of potentially controversial legislation. Although not without its detractors, the so-called "fracking bill" addresses important economic goals under strict regulatory supervision and boasted support from environmental groups as well as business interests.
But that bill was far the exception rather than the rule for legislation with a major impact in the state. The wait-and-hurry-up tradition of Illinois power politics was far more common, and it's worth noting that all the wheel spinning and empty bluster occurred despite a single party's veto-proof hold on both houses of government and residence in the governor's mansion. Virtual one-party leadership didn't produce exactly the authoritarian rule that many feared, but it also didn't demonstrate much leadership of any kind.
Ultimately, the spring session closed amid the same sense of frustration and dissatisfaction that has become characteristic of the Illinois legislature. The blame can be found in all the usual places. The anger cannot be escaped. It's the solution that is so unnervingly elusive. These same folks will be back in November, if not before should the governor order it, and again in January for a likely five-month repeat of this fruitless cycle.
But they don't have to be after that. That determination must be made at the polls, and it's there that we must focus our awareness and our long-term hopes.It is only there that we will get them to listen.