The General Assembly returns to Springfield for a special session on June 19; however, with the Legislature’s Democrat leaders at an impasse and the Governor unable or unwilling to take charge, the prospects for a major breakthrough appear slim.
Senators could be asked to vote on a “hybrid” plan that melds two competing and contradictory proposals. But, with no commitment from the House Speaker to allow a vote on the hybrid, it may suffer the same fate as previous measures, even if it does pass the Senate.
In the House, a union-backed plan was stripped of its content and replaced with the same plan that failed to win support from Senate Democrats at the end of May. I introduced a plan designed by the Illinois Policy Institute, in the Senate, and Tom Morrison and Jeanne Ives introduced it in the House, which would end future unfunded pension liability by converting all future pensions to defined contribution (401-k type) plans instead of defined benefit plans. Of course, without support from House Speaker Michael Madigan and/or Senate President John Cullerton, the plan isn’t going anywhere.
Cost-Shift on Agenda
Also up for debate in the Senate could be a plan (Senate Bill 1687) to shift future pension costs to universities and community colleges. I believe the plan makes a lot of sense since it would put those pension cost burdens where they belong – with the employer. The universities and community colleges are generally supportive of the plan and will likely reduce future pensions so that they do not have to raise tuitions significantly.
But opponents of the cost-shift argue it will result in property tax increases for community colleges and/or higher tuition costs for both community college and university students. It failed in the Senate on a 21-33 vote at the end of May with no Republican support except from me. Senate rules allow it to be brought back for another vote. I believe this would be a small step in the right direction for one of the five state pension plans.
The Senate has scheduled a committee hearing on June 18, to discuss the cost-shift, as well as alternative pension reforms for universities and community colleges.
The hybrid pension plan in the Senate would likely include provisions of Senate Bill 1, the comprehensive measure that passed the House but failed in the Senate, as well as the contents of Senate Bill 2404, which passed the Senate but has now been gutted in the House.
The more far-reaching cost-saving measures in Senate Bill 1 would go into effect first. If those measures are struck down by the courts, then the weaker provisions of Senate Bill 2404 would become effective. Unfortunately, that could give the court greater leeway to find Senate Bill 1 unconstitutional, allowing the state to fall back to the provisions of Senate Bill 2404, which do little to end the unfunded liability of our state. Yes, I understand. This is all a bit like a chess game between Madigan and Cullerton, and I and many others are beginning to feel like the pawns.
Prospects for a resolution appeared dim at week’s end as both sides seemed to be hardening their positions. Although the Governor has consistently claimed that pension reform is his top priority, he has shown little interest in real leadership by actively lobbying legislators of his own party.
Speaker Pushing Pension Cost Shift
Shifting pension costs to local taxpayers has long been a priority of the House Speaker and a deep concern for suburban and downstate lawmakers of both parties.
Although the Speaker originally targeted local school districts – calling state funding of teacher pensions a “free lunch” – strong bipartisan opposition forced him to focus instead on universities and community colleges where it clearly makes a lot more sense.
The “free lunch” claim was debunked by a Senate Republican study, which instead revealed that it is the Chicago Public Schools that have benefitted disproportionately from the state’s school funding formulas.
Concealed-Carry Awaits Governor
Some lawmakers have also expressed hope that the special session could be used to address any action the Governor may take on concealed-carry legislation, which allows citizens to obtain permits to carry a concealed weapon in public.
Although House Bill 183 (I signed on as a sponsor) won approval with veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate, many expect Quinn to either veto or amend the measure. A veto or amendatory veto would send the bill back to the Legislature, where lawmakers could either override the veto or accept or reject any changes the Governor might propose. Illinois is under a federal court order requiring the state to adopt concealed-carry legislation.
If the Governor acts before the June 19 special session date, lawmakers could take action while in Springfield, enabling the state to meet the federal court deadline without having to go through the expense of calling another special session, each one of which costs Illinois taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. One would think the Governor would avoid such waste unless and until he had an agreement between Michael Madigan and John Cullerton.