Reporter's Notebook: Scent of a lame-duck pension fix

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Count me among those skeptical of any real pension reform coming out of the Aug. 17 special session ordered Monday by Gov. Pat Quinn.

If the 2011 income tax hike is any indicator, "reform" will come with a last-minute, post-election, lame-duck vote.

This impending General Assembly special session has all the earmarks of a disaster for which Quinn's predecessor, Convict 40892-424, was infamous – he called 36 special sessions before he got impeached. (As for Convict 40892-424's gubernatorial predecessor, Convict 16627-424, I don't know how many special sessions he called.)

Does Quinn have a real plan? Will there be draft legislation by then? Will lawmakers dust off the proposal that passed the Senate last May and give it a whirl?

Quinn did announce his desire to shift the burden of teacher pensions to suburban and downstate property taxes (Chicago residents already pay for their teachers' pensions).

One at first wonders what Quinn ingested at the City Club of Chicago meeting where he announced the special session to make him think he could get not only meaningful reform, but also the three-fifths supermajority needed to pass it, in an election year.

In a redistricting election year with all 177 seats in the assembly up for grabs. On an issue in which you stick it to the taxpayers and the public-sector unions.

But Quinn knows what he's doing, and the secret is, it's not pension reform. This looks a lot like it's for show, at the very least to try to stave off yet another credit rating downgrade by showing that we're "doing something" about the $83 billion pension hole.

Lawmakers will travel down to Springfield (on our dime, of course), sit around for a day and contemplate their navels, and then drive home. The House, of course, already planned to be in town to vote on whether to expel indicted Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith.

I strongly suspect that the pension "fix" will come after the Nov. 6 election, and I'm not alone.

I talked to Sens. Pamela Althoff and Dan Duffy, and Rep. Mike Tryon for my story in today's paper about the special session. At the end of our interviews, I asked all three if they suspect the reform legislation will get rammed through after we find out who is coming back and who isn't.

All three of them said yes.

"I've been saying that for the past four months is that that's what will happen," Althoff, R-McHenry, told me. "Politically, many of the party leaders see a huge detriment to taking any action on pension reform prior to the election. It's going to happen in the lame-duck session because people who can vote on it won't be returning."

Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, called the special session an attempt to "fix a political problem, not a pension problem." Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, called the special session "Springfield 101 political posturing."

But while Althoff said the fix could come anytime during the fall veto session that begins three weeks after the election, Duffy, like me, suspects a last-minute vote, a la the 2011 tax hike.

"They'll bring us back in the final hours and try to jam something through," Duffy said.

That's the likely path in my opinion, because it worked to hike income taxes 67 percent on residents and 46 percent on businesses. The increase was approved in the last hours before the new General Assembly was sworn in.

Quinn needed every vote he could get for the big tax increase, and the 12 lame-ducks who voted for it in the final hours of their terms helped him secure it by one vote in both houses. As I wrote here, six of them ended up with government jobs, the most recent being Bob Flider, who is pulling down $133,273 a year heading the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

That's not halfway as cushy as the gig landed by fellow lame-duck tax hiker Michael Smith, who earns $94,000 a year on the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, which meets once a month. Yes, you read that right – $94,000 for one meeting a month that can be attended by telephone.

All of these hires were pure coincidence of course, or what the Chicago Tribune editorial board calls Quinncidences.

Quinn and other supporters of the teacher pension shift will know Nov. 7 who isn't coming back. Lame ducks leaving office, like the saying goes about dangerous people, have nothing to lose. That's almost two months in which the promise of state jobs and the luxurious pensions that come with them can be dangled in front of soon-to-be ex-lawmakers coming face to face with the grim specter of unemployment.

As I blogged here, government jobs are Illinois corruption's Medal of Honor – they are the ultimate patronage award that government can bestow for sticking it to the taxpayers above and beyond the call of duty.

I'm not going to Vegas with the odds of meaningful pension reform coming Aug. 17. If our property tax bills get socked with teacher pensions, it will very likely be January 2013, not August 2012, in which that happens.

And if that does happen, our income taxes from our paychecks will help pay the salaries and pensions of the new state jobs for the former lawmakers who made it possible.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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