By Ray Long
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is summoning lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session June 19 to try to break a stalemate over the state's massive public employee pension debt that triggered two downgrades from major credit rating agencies this week.
Unless the philosophical divide between the House and Senate can be bridged over the next two weeks, it's unclear at best whether a one-day session can resolve the issue. But Quinn faces political pressure in the form of a re-election campaign and financial pressure as pension payments gobble up the state budget. Calling a special session is one of his few options to look as though he's doing something about a pension debt that's approaching $100 billion.
Quinn made the move after Moody's Investors Service downgraded Illinois' credit rating Thursday and Fitch Ratings did so Monday. Illinois already had worst-in-the-nation status on both its credit rating and pension debt.
"Will two downgrades in one week be enough to convince the General Assembly that our pension crisis can't be ignored anymore?" Quinn said in a statement. "Time and time again over the past two years, I have proposed, asked and pushed members of the General Assembly to send me a comprehensive pension reform bill."
Last week, aides signaled that Quinn was leaning away from a special session after its experience last August. The governor called lawmakers into session on pensions during State Fair week, only to see them adjourn without action. Quinn's predecessor Rod Blagojevich made a habit of calling special sessions on the budget that lawmakers eventually tuned out altogether.
During the spring session, rival reform plans passed the House and Senate but failed to get sign-offs from the other chamber.
House Speaker Michael Madigan pushed through a plan that would require public workers to kick in more from their paychecks, accept a higher retirement age and scale back the size of the state's cost-of-living increases under a 30-year plan to reduce costs by $187 billion and bring the pension system up to full funding. Senate President John Cullerton's proposal saves about a third as much and calls on pensioners to make a choice, such as giving up retiree health care to preserve pension benefits.
"We're certainly ahead of where we were last August," said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, the Northbrook Democrat who is Madigan's point person on pension reform. But Nekritz was unsure of what could transpire June 19.
"Clearly there is a rift among Democrat leaders," said Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. "Despite their supermajority status, they missed a prime opportunity to enact comprehensive pension reform."
Quinn narrowly won election in 2010 and would-be challengers lining up for 2014 are already blasting him for his inability to resolve the pension issue, which the governor has listed as his top priority.
On the Republican side, wealthy venture capitalist Bruce Rauner got into the race Wednesday, saying state government is broken. State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who entered the contest last weekend, said Thursday that the downgrades could cost the state tens of millions of dollars in interest on standard borrowing done for public works projects throughout the state.
Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who could announce next week that he'll challenge Quinn in the Democratic primary, has questioned where the leadership was in Springfield, saying that a governor is responsible for forging compromises when differing sides are logjammed.
On Thursday, Moody's dropped the state's credit rating from A2 to A3, saying the "very low" position is "consistent with the General Assembly's inability to steer the state from a path to fiscal distress."
Standard & Poor's Ratings, in its own scolding Thursday, warned that Illinois is on the precipice of falling into ratings depths achieved in the past 50 years by Massachusetts, Louisiana and, most recently, California in 2004.
Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said ratings agency statements provide "more damning evidence that we can't afford a continual stalemate on pensions."
With Republicans far out of power in Springfield, it will take the three Chicago Democrats coming together on the issue to get it resolved. So far, they can't even agree when to meet -- Quinn and Cullerton showed up for a pension meeting Tuesday, but Speaker Madigan, whose daughter Attorney General Lisa Madigan is another potential Quinn challenger next year, was out of town and did not attend in person or via phone.
Now the three leaders have two weeks to come up with an elusive compromise or the special session again could prove an empty gesture.
(c)2013 Chicago Tribune