“Frankly, I’m not sure they want it,” Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) said Tuesday about Democratic legislative leaders and state pension reform.
It sure looked liked she was right last week, at least in the House, where Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) barely lifted a finger for any of the pension reform bills that were on the table.
His top aides insist that Madigan does want pension reform. Madigan has said he wants a bill to pass. So, what will it take to get him off the dime and start pushing for a solution?
Madigan’s members almost always take their cues from their leader on the big stuff. When he says “this is the bill I want right now,” they tend to go along. Until they get that message, House Democrats hold back and wait.
For his part, the conservative Madigan doesn’t usually get too far ahead of his members. He polls his caucus regularly, and if he sees major resistance to an issue, he’s almost always reluctant to push it. Unlike Gov. Pat Quinn, Madigan understands that defeat makes you look weak, and Madigan is obsessed with projecting an image of power.
And sometimes, especially when Madigan wants something big, he’s willing to wait and wait, and then wait some more, until the time is right before he makes his move.
So, let’s take him at his word that he realized the need for pension reform. What’s he waiting for?
The most obvious answer is the pension payment cost shift, which he strongly favors along with Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The controversial plan would shift pension bills for suburban and downstate teachers from the state to local school districts, forcing districts to be much more cautious in granting pay raises that lead to bigger pensions.
Republicans and plenty of suburban and downstate Democrats oppose the cost shift, claiming it would lead to substantial property tax increases because the public schools are largely financed via that tax. Chicago has a separate teachers retirement system, which is why Emanuel supports the idea.
But proponents of the cost shift point to a recent pension plan as having a workable framework. That proposal would raise the employer’s pension costs by half a percentage point of payroll per year. If school districts and universities can’t absorb such an increase each year without a big tax or tuition hike, proponents say, then they need to send their leaders back to management school.
When Madigan dropped the cost shift as a “must have” in the days leading up to the recent lame-duck session, Quinn trumpeted the move as a major breakthrough that would lead to a pension reform deal.
But the lame-duck session turned out to be very much like last May, when Madigan agreed to back off the cost shift and handed a pension bill to House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego). Quinn also hailed that decision as progress, but Madigan’s members quickly realized that no Madigan sponsorship meant no Madigan support, and the bill crashed and burned.
So, how the heck is this cost-shift thing ever going to pass? If the Republicans and lots of members are against it, fearing a voter revolt over higher tax bills, how does Madigan find the votes and persuade the GOP to climb aboard?
Madigan’s people won’t say, but a major crisis would be the most obvious avenue.
If the state’s credit rating is seriously downgraded, tons of pressure will be put on the General Assembly to act and restore some credibility to state finances. The Republicans might be more willing to sign on if their nervous big-business allies/donors insist that they participate in a solution.
Barring that, the only other way forward in the interim might be to do some small things toward pension reform that Madigan’s caucus could agree to. But even that might not go anywhere if Madigan decides to continue withholding support until he reaches his ultimate goal.