By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — The state’s pension crisis became the talk of the statehouse again, as Illinoisans began to move on from the Nov. 6 election — most Illinoisans, at least.
The state has no “magic pot of money” from which to pull funds for annual state employee raises, a House lawmaker said Thursday.
“As we fight to keep facilities open and we fight to fund the pension systems, the state is at the point where any and all additional financial pressures have to be looked at very seriously,” said state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion. “There is not a magic pot of money that can be found to pay for all the things we want.”
Bradley and other lawmakers on Thursday were in Chicago to consider House Joint Resolution 45, put forth by powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, with bipartisan support, which would cap cost-of-living increases for state workers. It also says that the size of the state’s workforce is not subject to collective bargaining.
Lawmakers and other state officials said cost-of-living raises will have to wait until Illinois can creep back from the edge of an unprecedented fiscal cliff. Unions see the resolution — which is nonbinding — as a threat to their collective-bargaining rights.
The question remains whether Gov. Pat Quinn and the public-sector unions will listen to lawmakers’ warning. The governor and the unions negotiate contracts, and the General Assembly is left to come up with the money to pay for whatever ends up in the agreements.
A Quinn spokesman on Thursday would not say if Quinn would abide by a cap set by the Legislature.
“This is a nonbinding resolution, and they took no action on it today. We were there to address questions and share information on immediate fiscal challenges and state of the budget,” said Abdon Pallasch, Quinn’s assistant budget director.
“To be clear, Gov. Quinn’s administration is focused on comprehensive pension reform to rescue the system, ensure public employees have access to benefits and prevent out of control pension costs from eating up core services like education and health care.”
But the General Assembly still is sending a message in the resolution to the governor and the unions.
“It’s saying this is the will of the House. Just by holding hearings on it even before the vote on it they’re sending a message,” said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, noting that the “message” can be cranked up even stronger — by getting the Senate to pass a companion resolution or by passing actual legislation instead of a resolution.
“This is sort of a first step. It’s not just Quinn (that Madigan) is sending a message to. He’s sending a message to both sides in these negotiations,” Mooney said. “He’s trying to shore up Quinn’s backbone to not succumb (to pressure) and sending a message to the unions saying, ‘Look, if you didn’t notice, we’re pretty broke here and we’re hoping we don’t see any raises come through on this, or any significant raises.’”
Lawmakers took no action on the resolution Thursday.
Illinois’ pension problem is “unfixable,” not only because of the overwhelming magnitude of the problem, but because lawmakers “won’t fix it,” a Chicago business group warned in a letter to Quinn on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Quinn’s office now is using a figure of $95 billion for the amount of the state’s unfunded pension liability, instead of the previous $83 billion figure. The recalculation occurred after the Teachers’ Retirement System revised its expected rate of return on pension investments.
Wednesday’s dressing-down from the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group that represents business, professional, educational and cultural leaders in Chicago, warned that the state’s pension crisis is not simply a problem of accounting or math — it’s a problem of “political courage.”
“…(I)t is clear our leaders and members of our General Assembly have chosen to roll over Illinois taxpayers rather than make the tough decisions necessary to save the state,” the letter, signed by Tyrone Fahner, reads. Fahner was Illinois’ attorney general from 1980 to 1983.
“It is a disservice to pensioners. But moreover, it is a slap in the face to the 95 percent of Illinois residents who do not participate in these pension systems. Lawmakers continue to live in denial on behalf of the 5 percent that do,” Fahner wrote. “It is time to level with the people of Illinois.”
Quinn said earlier this month that he wants the state’s pension headache fixed by Jan. 9 during lawmakers’ lame-duck session.
Add the Prairie State to the list of state secession petitions filed with the White House.
Two separate online petitions ask that the White House “peacefully grant the State of Illinois to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own NEW government.”
One petition was created Sunday by “Illinois R” in Pekin. The other petition was created Sunday by “Chris H.” As of mid-week, most of the signatures on the two petitions, though, were from people who live outside of Illinois.
The White House “We the People” online petition site was set up to make it easier for people to petition the government under the First Amendment. If a petition gets 25,000 signatures, President Barack Obama’s administration may review it, send it to the appropriate policy experts and issue an official response.
Obama’s re-election earlier this month sparked outcries from disgruntled voters nationwide and a string of petitions for states to secede from the union.
Also garnering thousands of signatures? A petition to “deport everyone that signed a petition to withdraw their state from the United States of America” and a petition to “force all states to pay their portion of the national debt before they can secede from the union.”