Pension reform in the state with the nation’s worst pension funding crisis is no laughing matter. Governor Pat Quinn’s alleged leadership on the issue over the past two years, however, would be laughable if it wasn’t such a burden on pensioners and taxpayers. The nearly $100 billion funding debt is costing taxpayers over $20 million daily, and has plummeted Illinois’s credit rating to the lowest among U.S. states – translating into higher borrowing costs, among other problems.
Most recently, his petulant parent act of deciding to not pay legislators, including himself, until they put a reform bill on his desk is disingenuous. The governor announced the no pay plan on July 10, after the 10-member conference committee repeated July 8 that they would not meet Quinn’s deadline. The farce actually peaked the day before the governor halted paychecks. Doug Finke reported, “At his Tuesday [July9] afternoon news conference, Quinn said he was giving lawmakers until midnight to pass a plan – even though they had left the Capitol more than an hour earlier.”
The committee said it awaited actuarial analysis of the reform framework they are considering. Quinn’s “stunt with some teeth,” as House Republican leader Tom Cross put it, might be appropriate if the governor made the effort to roll up his sleeves and work with leaders in both legislative chambers to find a reasonable approach to staunching the flow from a self-inflicted wound. Notice I didn’t say reasonable solution. The “solution” would have been not creating the problem in the first place. The initial funding formula, I assume, was designed to maintain the pension programs’ bases while the accounts grew through investments. Yet, overspending, in state after state, not just Illinois, left legislatures with no recourse except to not provide the money needed to keep the programs floating – heads above water, if you will. The result, as if no one saw this coming, was to find some scheme revolving around the twin “principles” of cutting current and future benefits, and increasing employee contributions. Cutting current benefit payments is theoretically unconstitutional under the existing state constitution. However, we have seen what happened in Wisconsin, Michigan et al.
Legislator responses critical to Quinn’s no play, no pay move include: “The governor is talking out of both sides of his mouth;” “political grandstanding;” “It’s gamesmanship;” “It’s almost childish;” “It’s a stunt a third grader would pull on the playground when the teacher isn’t looking.” A more sympathetic Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan’s, “I am hopeful his strategy works.” Rep. Wayne Rosenthal, R-Morrisonville, may have said it best: “I think it’s just another matter of being unable to lead and work with legislative leaders. The conference committee is ongoing. I don’t think the governor showed up the other day when they requested his presence.” The governor did send his budget director to the meeting.
The disingenuous part of Quinn’s act is Illinoisans love populism. Doing populist stuff, at least the rhetoric, won incarcerated Rod Blagojevich two terms as governor. The stuff works, Quinn really believes it, and, as Rich Miller wrote in his daily newsletter, Capitol Fax, “Battles with the General Assembly are popular outside the Statehouse.” Indeed, a recent Capital Fax/We Ask America poll showed widespread support for Quinn’s line-item veto of legislative salaries and benefits: “A very strong 66 percent of respondents said they approved of the governor’s action. Just 23 percent disapproved and 11 percent were uncertain. The results were pretty even, with 66 percent of women and 68 percent of men approving, while 65 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Independents approved. Disapproval was in the low- to mid- 20s for all.”
Gamesmanship, childish antics, populism – whatever – what stuck in my craw has been the attitude of lawmakers to those affected by the pension funding fiasco. On July11, Rochester resident Catherine Wells expressed disappointment and frustration at the treatment she and approximately 100 other state workers/retirees received at the July 8 pension hearing in the Capitol. Held in one of the building’s smaller hearing rooms, only about one-third was able to sit and listen. Staffers provided no closed-circuit television monitor to allow those excluded to watch from the hall.
Wells wrote in the Springfield Journal-Register’s In My View, “With space to seat only 50 members of the public, almost half of the seats were given to people in suits who pushed their way through the crowd of public workers and retirees whose futures are at stake. When the Senate usher announced there were only 30 seats left, there was grumbling in the crowd, but everyone was well behaved and polite. The rest of us, maybe twice as many as got in, stood in the hall outside the hearing room…. We were a crowd of public workers, public retirees and dependents, not one of us under 50. There were no chants, no shouts, no shoving and pushing. Yet, someone called the guards to keep us under control. Looking at a crowd of relatively quiet, polite middle-agers and elderly retirees, some using canes, it stretches the imagination to see why this was necessary. “
Wells continued that several in the hall crowd began accessing Blue Room Stream on smart phones and iPads to follow the proceedings. Those able to access began sharing “what they were seeing and hearing. Then the guards started moving people away from the doors of the hearing room. I asked what was going on. They said we had to move because we were making too much noise. Everyone who was talking had been talking in conversational tones.”
Guards continued to “quiet” the hall crowd. Wells concluded: “From what I saw it seems obvious that our presence was not wanted, and it is hard to deny the notion that some in that hearing room failed to show even the basic common courtesy for the citizens excluded.”
I have no reason to not believe Wells’ account. What I do believe, however, is this country is suffering serious political and social gridlock. Democracy is at risk as politicians fail to lead and legislate in a manner promoting progress. And American society fails in the simple civility of good manners.