Editorial: What happened to the sense of urgency on pensions?
Even before the first day of the scheduled fall session of the Illinois legislature closed on Tuesday, the House had canceled today's activities. Three days of work appeared too ambitious for the amount lawmakers expected to accomplish. "I think we can pretty much write off the week," observed the newly installed House minority leader, Western Springs Republican Jim Durkin.
Meanwhile, across the hall, the president of the Senate, Democrat John Cullerton of Chicago, had kicked off the week with the declaration in a radio interview that the public pension situation in Illinois is not a "crisis."
Never mind what you call it when your pension debt has swelled to more than $100 billion, your budget is coughing up $5 million a day to add to that figure, bond ratings agencies are falling all over themselves to downgrade you and critical services are withering because it's been so long since you paid them what you promised, it is clear that the phrase "sense of urgency" has somehow slipped from the vocabulary of the Illinois legislature.
In moments of generosity, we console ourselves with the acknowledgment that negotiators have been, well, busy may not be the right word, but active at least. They reportedly produced a compromise based on the House version of pension reform that stalled last spring, and Cullerton himself was said to be leaning toward it.
But that was weeks ago and all we are hearing now is that there's still not enough for lawmakers to talk about to make it worth their while to hang around Springfield.
This just will not do. In a little more than a month, the election campaign of 2014 will officially begin with the filing of petitions for legislative offices. How, we wonder, will lawmakers seeking a return to their seats explain to voters that the solutions they promised in campaigns two years ago still haven't materialized. Two years. Forgive our semantics, but by our definition and that of most lawmakers, not to mention economists and bond houses, it was a crisis then.
Ladies and gentlemen of the legislature, this is not good enough. Say what you will about your leadership not providing you something to vote on, but this is your problem, too. To be sure, Illinois' top-down leader-focused system of producing bills to vote on is a frustrating obstacle, but the leaders do not produce ideas in a vacuum. They respond to the membership.
Indeed, the most promising reform ideas that have made it to the table bubbled up from that small handful of members energetic enough and courageous enough to develop a plan that ticks off nearly every constituent special interest but makes headway toward a solution in the best interest of the entire state.
It's time for the rest of you to stop waiting to be told what to do and begin demanding bills to vote on, demanding a sense of urgency commensurate with whatever it is you want to call the situation that accounts for a fifth of all state spending and is sucking millions of dollars a day away from schools, from social programs, from health care, from business development and from every other activity of the state.
As a practical matter, it's Democrats in the Senate, where a viable House bill supported by Gov. Pat Quinn is being held up, who hold the most sway. In suburban districts, that means Melinda Bush of Grayslake, Thomas Cullerton of Villa Park, Don Harmon of Oak Park, Linda Holmes of Aurora, Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge, Terry Link of Waukegan, Julie Morrison of Deerfield, John Mulroe of Chicago and Michael Noland of Elgin should be prepared to explain to suburban voters what they've been doing to get out in front of this issue rather than wait for word from leaders. And they're not alone. Republicans likewise can't be permitted to hide behind convenient cries of political impotence, so Pam Althoff of McHenry, Michael Connelly of Lisle, Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, Dan Duffy of Lake Barrington, Karen McConnaughay of St. Charles, Matt Murphy of Palatine, Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove, Christine Radogno of Lemont and Dave Syverson of Rockford all need to remain on notice, too.
Lawmakers, you're scheduled to meet again for three days beginning Nov. 5. Don't be satisfied to "write off" another opportunity.