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When it comes to pensions, Illinois faces lack of leadership

SPRINGFIELD – We keep looking for leadership – and we keep ending up with politics.

How else can we explain Gov. Pat Quinn’s desperate move in the waning hours of this month’s lame-duck session?

He wanted the Illinois Legislature to delegate its power to a special commission that would make the difficult decisions regarding reforming the state pension systems.

Silly me – I thought we elected lawmakers to make tough decisions. But apparently not everyone sees it that way.

A House committee approved, and the governor endorsed, a plan to create the commission to deal with pensions. The eight-member board would have been composed of appointees from the head of each legislative caucus.

Members of the commission would serve life appointments and their decisions would be final as long as both chambers of the Legislature didn’t vote to overrule them.

In other words, the Legislature could do nothing and let members of the commission take all the heat.

Fortunately, the plan never came up for a vote in the General Assembly. I guess we should be reassured by that.

But it’s frightening that our governor would back a plan that would have stripped voters of their say.

After all, voters can always boot a legislator from office during the next election, but there is no way for them to hold a group of unelected commissioners accountable.

Quinn likes to mention that he was born on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. He fancies himself as an advocate for grass-roots democracy. And he has a track record of leading grass-roots causes – such as a 1980s revolt against legislative pay raises.

In 1985, he personally sued the state, arguing that a commission of unelected individuals that determines pay raises for lawmakers was unconstitutional. He lost the case, but his efforts then were praiseworthy.

But where was that Pat Quinn this month?

He used the case that he lost as a legal precedent for creating a new commission to deal with pensions. Has the man no shame?

This unelected commission would have had the power to radically reshape one of the largest items in the state budget – and even would have had the power to raise taxes on its own. The idea scared government employee unions, as well free market policy groups.

As well it should have.

After all, we have a republican form of government through which we elect our lawmakers. They are supposed to be accountable to us – the voters.

To create a commission to make the “really tough decisions” with little to no oversight defies the democratic principles that this nation was founded upon.

Imagine George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry sitting around the Continental Congress and saying, “Hey, this liberty thing is hard. Let’s just appoint an unelected, unaccountable monarch and have him make the tough decisions for us.”

Oh wait. That’s what they were trying to get rid of.

But that is exactly the approach Quinn took to address the pension question.

At a time when Illinois needs leadership, it got something less. That’s disappointing.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at: sreeder@illinoispolicy.org. Readers can subscribe to his free political newsletter by going to Reederreport.com.

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