The politics behind the pension vote

December 4, 2013

WBEZ/Tony Arnold
Dan Montgomery, with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, strikes a somber tone while talking to reporters with other labor leaders after Tuesday’s pension vote.

Illinois lawmakers have approved a long-awaited plan to restructure retirement benefits for state employees and Gov. Pat Quinn says he’ll sign the bill into law.

But labor groups are vowing to sue, saying the measure unlawfully cuts the pensions of their members.

And even though the dialogue around changing the pension benefits of state employees started years ago, the proposal sets up a big fight for next year’s election.

Legislative leaders gave themselves a week - a holiday week, at that - to sell the bill to their own members. Senate President John Cullerton spent Tuesday morning meeting privately with his senators to get them on board.

Republican House Leader Jim Durkin says the short timeframe made for a busy home stretch.

“I had people running in and running out over the last 24 hours,” he said in an interview after Tuesday’s vote. “Talking to every member, every question.”

Except, Durkin said, there may have been an ulterior motive behind some of the questions he was getting from his own fellow Republicans.

“I’ll say some questions weren’t exactly sincere. So that’s politics. That’s what we live in,” he said. “But there was a lot of - to say that it got a little tense is an understatement.”

Durkin said some Republicans had legitimate concerns. For instance, he says some downstate GOP representatives have a lot of state employees in their districts, especially those with prisons. Meantime, others want to move state pension funds into 401K style plans -- and nothing else would do.

“Some people I will just say that their reasoning is not reasonable and I question it because of the dynamics of what’s going on in the State of Illinois over this next year,” Durkin said. “It’s a political season and some people believe that we shouldn’t deliver a win to the Democrats.”

The logic goes: If Republicans blocked yesterday’s pensions vote, Democrats - and Governor Pat Quinn - would look bad for not getting the job done come Election Day. That’s a claim reiterated by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who’s also chair of the Illinois Democratic Party.

“I find Bruce Rauner to be particularly disingenuous with his approach to this,” Madigan said.

Rauner is a venture capitalist running for governor who opposes the pension deal.

“My view is that (Rauner) would like to blow it up so that he would maintain a campaign issue,” Madigan said. “So with the passage of the bill and the anticipated signature by the governor, why, Rauner has lost one of his campaign issues.”

In response to Madigan’s claim, a Rauner spokesman said the Republican thinks the plan is a bad one. After the vote, Rauner released a statement saying the pension bill doesn’t go far enough.

When asked if Rauner and his allies made the pension vote more complicated for Republican senators, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said, “Absolutely it made it more complicated.”

She said if the vote had taken place at another time - and not three months before the primary - the votes might have been different. When asked why Rauner, who’s never held political office, could influence lawmakers so much, Radogno said it’s not just about Rauner’s political influence, but also his money.

And Rauner has a lot of it.

“I mean, people think about campaign funding. They think about what support they’ll get when they’re running. They think about their own political futures. They think about the people that are around Bruce Rauner and how they relate to them and their campaigns,” Radogno said.

There are three other Republicans in the primary for governor.

State Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, was the only candidate to support the pension bill.

Twenty percent of the current budget’s revenue goes toward pensions. Brady says that number will only get worse - and the remaining money isn’t enough to pay for education and other government services.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard of Westmont, wanted more time to review the legislation - and voted no. But his pick for Lieutenant Governor in next year’s campaign, State Representative Jil Tracy of Quincy, voted yes.

Treasurer Dan Rutherford said he thinks it’s unconstitutional.

On the Democratic side, incumbent Pat Quinn, who’s running for re-election, could face some opposition from a group who previously supported him: labor unions.

“I do think, as I said, this is the triumph of politics over the rule of law in this state, so I would imagine there are political consequences all around,” said Dan Montgomery, the head of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

When asked what those consequences will be, Montgomery replied, “Well, that’s yet to be seen.”

But with a lawsuit from the unions imminent, the issue isn’t likely to disappear before next year’s election.

Already, Chicago and Cook County officials are wondering how the vote will affect their own pension systems.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement shortly after the legislature approved the pension bill.

“The pension crisis is not truly solved until relief is brought to Chicago and all of the other local governments across our state that are standing on the brink of a fiscal cliff because of our pension liabilities,” Emanuel said.

State lawmakers agree.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Buffalo Grove, said that while some of the state’s pension systems are poorly funded, Chicago’s teachers’ retirement plans are perhaps even worse.

“Our work on pensions is by no means done, but this will let a lot of air back in the room to start addressing the other systems,” she said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said county employees’ retirement system’s unfunded liability grew by $1 billion last year, and also needs state intervention.

Meantime, House Republican Leader Durkin said he’ll work with Mayor Emanuel, even though he’s with the opposing political party.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnoldIllinois Public Radio’s Amanda Vinicky contributed to this report. Follow her @amandavinicky.