The last few weeks showcased the Illinois General Assembly at its best and worst. Lawmakers plotted a course — and summoned the courage — to rescue Medicaid. They began the process of closing underused state institutions, passed a bill to require state retirees to help pay for their health care and voted, at long last, to kill the corrupt legislative scholarship program.
But the session ended without a solution to the biggest problem facing Illinois: a gravely underfunded pension system that threatens to strangle everything else.
So let's pause to applaud those hard-fought successes, then get back to business. Without pension reform, this session still goes down as a resounding failure. There's no scenario under which the state can right its financial ship without stabilizing pensions. That's why Gov. Pat Quinn is calling legislative leaders back to Springfield this week.
The leaders know how to do this. They showed us with the Medicaid overhaul:
Lawmakers from both parties spent months huddling with staff from the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to come up with a $2.7 billion package of cuts and revenues. They debated it openly and at length. The emotional tone underscored the difficulty of what needed to be done. Thousands of families will see their access to health care reduced — some dramatically — in order to right-size Medicaid. At one point during debate, state Rep. Mary Flowers begged a teary-eyed bill sponsor, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, to drop the bill "for the life of the people who are going to die."
It was hard to vote yes, but harder to vote no. The bill easily passed both chambers and awaits Quinn's signature. Well done.
The pension reform effort followed a more familiar script, failing in a classic end-of-session dash, with a last-minute bill that lawmakers didn't have time to digest, much less debate.
We had reason to hope for better. A framework outlined by Quinn in April called for employees to work till age 67, contribute 3 percent more toward their pensions, and accept lower cost-of-living adjustments in retirement. Current employees who didn't agree to those reduced future COLAs would be ineligible for state-subsidized retiree health insurance. And their future raises wouldn't be factored into their pensions.
But the bill that finally materialized from House Speaker Michael Madigan — on Tuesday morning of a session scheduled to adjourn Thursday — scrapped the parts that required workers to pay more and work longer, squandering much of the predictable savings of Quinn's proposal. The sparse and squishy numbers attached to Madigan's bill offered little assurance that it would get the job done.
But Madigan's plan to shift the cost of teacher pensions from the state to local school districts was the deal-breaker. Republicans and Downstate Democrats balked at the plan, worried that it would result in higher local property taxes (and voter backlash). Madigan relinquished sponsorship of his bill to House Minority Leader Tom Cross, then announced that he wouldn't vote for a version without the cost-shifting proposal. That caused the whole effort to collapse.
This job has to get done, and everyone knows it. Pension payments are taking bigger and bigger bites of the state budget, swallowing dollars that need to be spent on education, social services and public safety. Failure to fix the retirement systems will continue to hurt the state's bond rating, making it more costly to borrow.
So it's time to press the reset button.
Quinn wisely decided to hash things out with the leaders instead of keeping everyone after class. That gives them time and space to forge a compromise they can sell to their members, instead of dropping a hastily assembled mess in their laps and asking them to pass it on faith.
Pension reform won't get done unless the governor and all four leaders form a united front. Lawmakers from both parties answer to constituencies that want to believe the status quo can somehow survive, but that fantasy can't be indulged any longer. Leaders need to craft a compromise and put the votes behind it.
The job falls to Quinn, Madigan and Cross, as well as Senate President John Cullerton and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. Work it out.
Don't ask your members to vote on a plan until you can show them (and the rest of us) the mathematical assumptions on which it's based and how those assumptions add up to a solution. That means closing the $83 billion funding shortfall and assuring that the pension funds become healthy. It likely also means requiring suburban and Downstate school districts to accept more responsibility for their own pension costs going forward.
Lawmakers will have to defend this vote. Their leaders need to make sure they can.