Illinois General Assembly
8:58 am
Wed January 9, 2013

New Session Of Ill. General Assembly Begins

Reporting from Amanda Vinicky from Illinois Public Radio.

Credit Flickr/Jason Dunnivant

A new session of the Illinois General Assembly begins today, when candidates who won in November's elections take the oath of office.  The outgoing class of legislators left the incoming one with quite a burden.  

Tuesday night, the previous General Assembly adjourned without doing anything to reduce Illinois' $97 billion pension debt, though there were a few last minute tries.

If there was a time for a pension overhaul to pass, it was yesterday. That was the prevailing wisdom, anyway. After all, back in September, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton signaled it would come in the New Year. And this was the last time dozens of "lame duck" legislators, free from having to worry about their next campaign, would be able to cast a vote.

But no. Both the House and Senate adjourned - without sending anything to Gov. Pat Quinn to ease Illinois' ever-growing pension problem.

Not that there weren't attempts. Including a surprise, last-ditch effort by Quinn himself.

"We have to take extraordinary action to help break the gridlock," said Quinn during an unusual appearance before a legislative committee to be grilled on a newly-cooked up plan.

Quinn proposed tasking a Commission with devising a way to get Illinois' pension systems back on track. But not just any commission. This would be a sort of "super committee" with extraordinary powers. Whatever it came up with would automatically become law - unless a majority of the General Assembly voted to reject it: a plan devised as an end run around political gridlock.

“We all know this is a difficult issue for every single member, for all of us in the executive branch, and indeed for all those who are affected by the decisions. But we must have some sort of movement. We have to understand that this is an emergency, and it does require under this emergency situation, a  - I think - approach, a structure - that allows us to move forward."

Given that it was kept secret until just before the committee, unions didn't have much time to review Quinn's proposal.

They didn't need it.

Unions, who've battled every other pension proposal brought before the General Assembly, especially didn't like this one.

"This you could say is clever," said Dan Montgomery with the Illinois Federation of Teachers'. "I would say, unfortunately, I think it's a cynical and seemingly reasonable, but rather sad attempt to get something done."

"Why do we even need a General Assembly if everything can be turned over to a commission, it's just crazy," said Cinda Klickna of the Illinois Education Association.

"We are strongly opposed," said the AFL-CIO's Michael Carrigan. "I would simply characterize this as a desperate, Hail Mary pass."

But it wasn't just unions who were opposed. Legislators themselves mocked the plan . 

"This is an embarrassing, desperation ploy from a guy who can't get anything done," Democratic Representative Jack Franks of Marengo criticized.

Although Representatives passed Quinn's measure out of a committee, several say it was mostly a courtesy to the Governor. Then the full House adjourned without ever voting on it.

The House didn't take up two other pension proposals either, because there weren't enough votes to pass them. One plan - preferred by Senate President John Cullerton - passed out of that chamber back in May. The other garnered a lot of attention earlier this week when it got bipartisan support from a House panel.

Supporters of those separate proposals can unite in frustration that they stalled. But otherwise the new session is starting off with a showdown between the two plans.

The main sponsors, Senate President John Cullerton and Democratic Representative Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, each have questions about the legality of the others' plan.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno says it leaves her concerned that nothing will get accomplished.

"When you look at the dynamic of the General Assembly, the Democrats have had clear, clear majorities now for ten years," said Rodogno. "Republicans have worked very hard on pension reform. The problem is the Democrat majorities do not agree on pension reform, and frankly I'm not sure they want it."

Despite Radogno's pessimism, both Cullerton and Nekritz say they're willing to compromise.

Part of the rush to pass something -- anything -- is to hold off the bond rating agencies, which have threatened to lower Illinois' already-weak credit rating. Cullerton says there's no need for them to rush to judgment over the standstill.

"The pension system in the state are in no way bankrupt," warned Cullerton. "It's just not true, we're behind in paying our bills.  The pension system is less underfunded than it was in 1970."

But Illinois already has the lowest credit rating of any state. And some legislators speculate, fear, even ... that it'll take a further downgrade to force reluctant politicians to get on board.