Editorial: Urgency, plus plan, needed on pensions

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted8/3/2012 5:00 AM

It's hard not to like Gov. Pat Quinn's sense of urgency in calling a special legislative session for Aug. 17 to deal with teacher and state-employee pensions, but the effort seems to be crippled from the outset by the lack of a critical feature -- a plan.

The Aug. 17 target is attractive for a couple of reasons. It demonstrates the need to act and act quickly on pension reform. It brings all the parties together at a time when members of the House were already scheduled to be working in Springfield. It avoids the nasty possibility of lawmakers artfully, to put a nice turn on the notion of political cowardice, delaying action until the November lame-duck session or even pushing it off later.


But it also emphasizes some glaring shortcomings. For one, it begs the question of what Quinn and other legislative leaders have been doing on pension reform since the regular session in May, which, despite the governor's declaration that he has "continued work with the leaders of all four legislative causes to introduce legislation that would eliminate the state's unfunded pension liability, stabilize and strengthen the pension systems and ensure that the public employees who have faithfully contributed to the system receive benefits," appears to be precious little.

At present, there are few indications that the House and Senate have broken the stalemate over their competing proposals -- Republicans and Democrats in the House continue to wrangle over shifting pension responsibilities back to local school districts, the Senate, which at least has passed a bill, would address one set of state employees but leave the issue of the cost transfer for teacher pensions to a later date.

Recognizing the lack of movement, the governor seems to believe, in the words of one staffer, that the only way to get some result is to "shake the tree," and his willingness to press the slow-moving legislature for action is certainly admirable. But it's also true that you never know what -- if anything at all -- could randomly fall to the ground from such a process. Which is not to say we don't support a call for pension reform to get done in an Aug. 17 special session. We'd like nothing better than to see that -- as long as the pension reform were responsible and comprehensive and, in particular, as we've said in the past, doesn't simply shift the burden onto local taxpayers.

We just don't see how such a nuanced, far-reaching solution is going to materialize without more direct, constant meetings among legislative leaders and the governor and without, to be sure, more outspoken involvement from regular citizens.

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As urgent as it is, pension reform in Illinois is a complex brew of high-powered and competing political interests, local-government influences, constitutional requirements and pressures in the financial markets. As a result, it's a prime candidate for rhetoric without much motivation to act.

Lawmakers, whose foot-dragging on this issue borders on being reckless, need to hear from voters that they must rise above the political pressures and to recognize that there will be consequences at the polls if they fail.

We hope that enough can be done along those lines to achieve some success by Aug. 17. But it's not hope that will produce results. It's a workable plan -- and that is what we most need to see right now.

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