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Article posted: 6/25/2013 5:00 AM

Who has ammo in state's three-way staredown?

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By Paul Green

In the great movie "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the main characters have a film ending staredown/three-way shootout in a cemetery that has one grave filled with buried treasure.

Yes, I believe this movie metaphor fits the three-way Democratic tussle in Springfield over public pensions between Gov. Pat Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan (the cast matching is up to you, the reader).

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This three-way battle has been going on for years with all of them agreeing the problem is "unsustainable." However, they have been unwilling or perhaps unable to cut the deal that can ease the "revenue draining" pension costs. Now the three -- in a moment of political courage -- have formed a committee to come up with a plan by July 9 to resolve the issue.

For the record -- there are few innocents in this government/political fiasco.

Republican legislators "talk the talk" but do not "walk the walk". They have shown the same political timidity as most of their Democratic counterparts -- especially in the state Senate -- as they failed to support the only legislation that can truly impact this ongoing pension disaster -- Speaker Madigan's SB-1 bill. Like many "quivering" Democrats they hide behind the notion that the Illinois Supreme Court will find Madigan's plan unconstitutional -- these folks have taken on the role of judicial "prophets".

Most Democratic legislators are no bargain either. They fear public employee union retribution if they support Madigan's bill. Arguments that state pension funds are now $100 billion in the red mean nothing to many of these folks. Union leaders talk about the state constitution, past promises, former General Assembly underfunding, and the middle-class families' need for their "meager" pensions. Unfortunately, this problem is a math and not a rhetoric problem -- advocates for the pension status quo should be honest and simply state, "Illinois taxpayers, we need to at least double the state income tax to maintain our current and future pension benefits."

Illinois voters are as usual "blasé" -- indifferent or bored with this issue. Only some realize that pension funding in Springfield is eating up dollars that should go to the main functions of state government -- education/public safety/health programs, human welfare and paying bills.

What to do? The answer is economically simple, but politically complicated. Economics demand raising the retirement age for new employees, reducing or ending the automatic 3 percent cost of living annual raises and making current and future retirees pay more for health care.

The politics is not so easy -- Speaker Madigan's daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, may run for governor and many conspiracy theories abound that his unwillingness to reach a pension deal is because it would help Quinn, his daughter's rival for the Democratic nomination. Some have even suggested Senate President Cullerton, a longtime pal of the Speaker, may be a secret co-conspirator.

Oh where is author Dan Brown when we need him?

Others suggest the unions, who have taken a position supporting Cullerton's more modest pension-reducing bill, will have someone challenge it in court -- thus at least delaying the implementation of Cullerton's bill or any compromise bill the committee comes up.

Back to the movie. In the tense shootout, only Clint Eastwood knows that one of his foes has no bullets in his gun (he took them out) and thus he has to watch only one person, not two. In the end, he kills Lee Van Cleef leaving only Eli Wallach holding an empty gun. My question of our three Springfield "gunslingers" is which one has no bullets in his gun and is only bluffing that he truly wants to resolve this issue -- or is there more than one?

Whatever their motives, they would do well to heed Eastwood's post-shootout line to Wallach. "In this world," says Eastwood, "there are two kinds of people -- those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig."

Unless this pension crisis is ended, there will be no shovel big enough to get us out of this deepening economic hole.

• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg.

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