Illinois lawmakers head to Springfield tomorrow for the last week of the fall session.
Several big items have been pushed to the back burner, including a bill that would overhaul Illinois' pension systems. It's proving to be one of the most radioactive issues in the legislature this year. And that's why lawmakers might put it off -- again.
Putting it off, however, won't make the state's financial picture better. Gov. Pat Quinn in September announced he needed to close seven prisons and homes for the disabled because there is no money to keep them operating. If his decision stands, it will mean a major reshuffling of the mentally ill, some of whom were sent to institutions because they’re dangerous. It could mean relocating adults and children who have severe physical disabilities.
There are many examples of the budget crunch. The state is so far behind paying its bills, it had to stop a program that helped fund burials of poor people whose families couldn’t afford to bury them.
"We’re broke, as everyone knows," said Ty Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general and president of the Civic Committee, which focuses on economic growth.
His group has been pushing legislation that would make state workers, teachers and others pay more toward their retirements. Because the state is so far behind paying its share to their retirement accounts, there is little money left over. The debt grows each year, taking a bigger share of the state budget.
State Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park) is chairman of the House pensions committee.
"I don’t think there’s any member of the General Assembly who doesn’t realize this is a problem we have to do something about," he said.
But lawmakers seem to be gearing up for their final week of session without addressing the single biggest budget pressure facing taxpayers.
"This all comes from basic cowardice, and I mean that word sincerely," said Fahner who believes lawmakers are more focused on their re-eletion campaigns than on the state's budget crisis. Goups that oppose the bill are powerful. Unionized teachers and state workers are hounding lawmakers with phone calls and e-mail. And union leaders are determined to run candidates against incumbents who support the idea of making their members pay more.
The unions say the reason the state is in this mess is the state’s fault, not theirs.
Even legislators will admit they used the pension system as a credit card. When there wasn’t enough money for schools or health care for the poor, they made a smaller payment into the retirement accounts of workers, thinking eventually they would catch up.
But it didn’t stop there.
They also made pension benefits more expensive over the years. They made retirement ages younger for certain groups. They made retirement income go up each year, higher than the cost of living, through a compounded 3 percent adjustment. And they added more workers.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego is sponsoring a bill to overhaul the pension system, and he is ready for a vote on it this week.
"We could sit here and point fingers, but I think this is the issue of the day, and if we don’t address pensions, it will consume us like we’ve never seen before," he said.
Lawmakers meet for three days. So far, it looks like they’ll be asked to vote on a tax cut package for businesses and maybe a casino bill.
But the state’ s biggest money crisis – pensions – just might get kicked to the spring.