State Government

Pension reform casts large shadow on veto session

For the umpteenth time, the General Assembly returns to session with the state’s worst-in-the-nation unfunded pension liability looming large.

The only change that has come from previous sessions has been the growth of the liability, mostly through inaction of state lawmakers. The unfunded liability of the five state-run pension systems stands at $100 billion or more than double that, depending on how one crunches the numbers.

Lawmakers have reconvened for the fall veto session, which totals six days – Tuesday through Thursday and Nov. 5 to 7.

Will pension reform come this session?

Not likely, for several reasons.

Bills that take effect immediately need three-fifths supermajorities to pass in veto session: 11 more votes in the House and six more in the Senate. And with an election year looming, most lawmakers will be reticent to weigh in on hot-button topics that will alienate large swaths of voters.

Several issues are likely to come up, even if they do not result in legislation moving forward.

• Pension reform: A 10-member bipartisan panel of House and Senate members has been meeting since June to develop a pension reform plan that would survive the inevitable lawsuit by the state’s powerful public-sector unions, which point to the guarantee in the state Constitution that benefits “cannot be diminished or impaired.”

Although the group has not yet reached consensus, it has focused on a plan to reduce the automatic 3 percent compounded annual increase, limit the salary used to calculate the pension and delay the age at which retirees would become eligible to receive the annual cost-of-living adjustment.

The committee itself was born because of an impasse between dueling versions of pension reform championed by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. Such “conference committees” are a rarely used political tool to reach consensus when both houses come to loggerheads. Madigan’s proposal saved far more money, but Cullerton said his version, unlike the House one, would survive a legal challenge.

Lawmakers adjourned the spring session May 30 without acting on pension reform. Two of the three major bond rating agencies then further downgraded Illinois’ credit rating, which is now the worst among all 50 states.

Twenty percent of the state’s 2014 budget is going to pay retiree pensions. Almost all of the new revenue gained by the state’s historic 2011 income-tax increase – 67 percent on individuals and 46 percent on businesses – has been swallowed by the state’s pension obligations.

The perceived delay in coming up with pension reform prompted Gov. Pat Quinn in July to freeze lawmakers’ pay until they came up with a plan. A Cook County court overturned the freeze, and the Illinois Supreme Court agreed last week to hear Quinn’s appeal.

• Same-sex marriage: Like pension reform, the odds of lawmakers passing a bill legalizing same-sex marriage are slim.

A bill already has passed the Senate, and Quinn has promised to sign it. But it still likely does not have the votes to pass in the House, which is why openly gay sponsor Greg Harris, D-Chicago, did not call it during the spring session, back when it needed 60 votes to pass.

With the March primary looming and the veto session falling before the deadline to file, Republican lawmakers and Democrats from socially conservative districts have to worry about picking up a primary challenge by voting “yes.”

Two lawsuits challenging Illinois’ ban on gay marriage are being allowed to proceed, which means that same-sex marriage in Illinois could come from the courts rather than from the Legislature. New Jersey on Monday became the 14th state to allow same-sex marriage because of a successful court challenge of its ban.

Lawmakers in the 2011 lame-duck session approved civil unions for gay and straight couples.

• Gun control: Lawmakers could hear bills aimed at increasing penalties for gun crimes and at scaling back the new concealed-carry law.

One bill seeks to create a three-year mandatory sentence for unlawful aggravated use of a firearm. Several seek to ban carrying in any establishment where alcohol is served – the current law bans weapons only from establishments that make more than half of their sales from alcohol.

Lawmakers were forced to craft a concealed-carry bill earlier this year after a federal appeals court struck down Illinois’ total ban – all other states allow residents some form of carrying weapons in public.

Passage of either bill is problematic, given the ideological divide in Springfield over the Second Amendment.

Chicago Democratic lawmakers advocate strict gun control and downstate lawmakers from both parties support gun rights, meaning legislation that tilts too far one way or the other often does not have the votes to pass. A number of bills aimed at loosening up some of the concealed-carry bill’s numerous restrictions likewise face long-shot odds.

Also, a number of lawmakers during the veto session may take the advice of Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who has fought for years for concealed carry, and “take a deep breath” until after the law takes effect.

At least a dozen Illinois counties have had de facto concealed carry for months because their state’s attorneys have pledged not to prosecute people who carry concealed weapons unless they do so in the commission of a crime.

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