Don’t expect a vote on a plan to overhaul the state’s government worker pension program until after the new year, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton indicated Thursday.
The North Side Democrat said that there simply aren’t enough votes to pass changes now, despite repeated calls by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for lawmakers to take immediate action.Cullerton said the hope is that legislators will be more willing to pass an overhaul after the Nov. 6 election, when it’ll be clear who will stay in office and who will go. The bar to approve legislation gets lower in January, when only a majority of the House and Senate is required.
Before then, three-fifths of lawmakers would have to vote for pension reform for it to take effect immediately.
“The earliest we can pass pension reform as a practical matter is Jan. 1,” Cullerton said during an appearance before the Tribune editorial board.
During last week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he does not foresee lawmakers returning to Springfield before the election.
“You know, we’re learning in recent years that on these major issues, you do ‘em when you’re able to do ‘em,” said Madigan, who indicated that a January vote on pension reform remains “a possibility.”
The most recent high-profile example of the January political dynamic came in 2011, when Democrats who control state government approved a major income-tax increase just before the new legislature was sworn in.
Cullerton acknowledged that a key challenge remains to getting pension reform passed: Republicans are unwilling to sign off on a key provision pushed by Democrats that would shift some pension costs for teachers on to local school districts. Democrats argue school districts should cover the costs of benefits they give to educators, but Republicans contend the move would force a property tax increase.
“I’m for the cost shift… I’ve got to convince legislators to vote for it,” Cullerton said. “We are talking about mainly Republicans here, so I don’t know (how to do that), other than trying to convince them that if they don’t vote for it, we’re not going to have any pension reform.”
A Quinn aide said the governor was “disappointed” that pension action likely won’t happen until after the New Year. But spokeswoman Brooke Anderson acknowledged that there are no plans to call lawmakers back to Springfield in the meantime.
“We would prefer action sooner rather than later, but we are committed to working with lawmakers to fix the problem so taxpayers can begin saving money,” Anderson said.
Quinn called lawmakers into a one-day special session last month but even a watered-down version of pension reform failed to pass and the governor was criticized.
Quinn hoped lawmakers would act to prevent the state's credit rating from being downgraded. They didn't, and Standard & Poor's lowered Illinois' rating shortly after.
While the pension prediction was a blow to Quinn, Cullerton did offer the governor better news on another high-profile issue: gambling. Cullerton said he does not think Senate lawmakers could override Quinn’s veto of a major gambling expansion and said they should instead focus on working with the governor to come up with a package both sides could support.
Quinn vetoed a measure last month that would have legalized five new casinos, including one in Chicago, and allowed slot machines at race tracks. Quinn says more work needs to be done on oversight issues, and argues more gambling dollars should be funneled in to schools.
Quinn has previously said he was opposed to slot machines at race tracks, but has since indicated he’s willing to negotiate with lawmakers on that point.
“We agree that lawmakers cannot override the governor,” Anderson said. “As the governor has made clear, we are willing to work on a better bill.”
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