The third Friday in August should be a good day to get a tee time in Illinois. Gov. Pat Quinn just called Illinois lawmakers off the golf course and back to work that day to save the state from a fiscal collapse.
The governor said Monday he has called a special session of the Legislature on Aug. 17 to deal with pension reform. That's good.
He didn't say he will use the next 16 days to press Republican and Democratic leaders for a deal on pensions, so the rank-and-file will have something to approve at the special session.
He didn't say he'll call another special session on Aug. 18, and another special session on Aug. 19, and another one every single day until the Legislature puts real, substantial pension savings into law.
We asked the governor to call a special session and applaud him for doing so. But that action guarantees only that lawmakers will have a reason to hang around for a day and go see Cheap Trick, the headliner at the State Fair that Friday night.
Want to talk about cheap tricks? Illinois has the worst-funded pension system in the nation. That unfunded liability has been pegged at $83 billion, but even that figure is a gross underestimate. New research says the Teachers Retirement System in 2010 could cover only 18.8 percent of its liabilities. The pension systems are staring at insolvency. The unfunded pension liability grows by $12.6 million a day.
The state's total liabilities have been pegged by the state auditor general at nearly $44 billion. Rating agencies have warned they're ready to downgrade the state's credit, which would drive up its borrowing costs ... or worse. "If we don't take action, they will take action," Quinn warned Monday at the City Club of Chicago, where he announced the special session.
We've seen no evidence that Republican and Democratic leaders are ready to make a deal to save the state. They'd prefer to push the whole ugly pension thing past the Nov. 6 election, lest they offend anybody who is in line for those great retirement benefits.
The special session should, at least, put a little more pressure on them. The outlines of a compromise are clear. Republicans oppose a Democratic proposal to shift future pension costs for suburban and downstate teachers onto the school districts that employ those teachers. Republicans need to accept a gradual shift of those costs to the schools. In turn, Democrats should drop their opposition to hiking employee contributions into the pension system. If Democrats have an alternative to that — say, an extended freeze on retiree cost-of-living increases — then put it out there.
Just remember, a symbolic stab at cost savings won't fool the ratings agencies and won't fool the taxpayers.
Senate leaders will point to a bill they passed in the spring that deals with the pensions of state employees and lawmakers, but not with teacher pensions. Quinn said Monday that bill achieves only one-third of the cost savings needed to rescue the system. It's not going to be enough to show up Aug. 17, have the House approve the limited Senate plan and send everybody home.
Legislators, you got the call: Aug. 17. That's 81 days from Election Day. Go to Springfield. Stay until you get this job done.
Lawmakers, go to Springfield. Don't leave until you've fixed pensions
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