Pat Quinn Shoots the Moon on Pensions

The governor returns to his style when he made his name as a 30-year-old political gadfly. It made him popular—but inadvertently added to the fix we’re in.

Pat Quinn

Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

When Pat Quinn announced that he would stop paying legislators until they pass a pension fix, one of my colleagues called it a “Blagojevich moment": the sort of ham-fisted populism Blago used in lieu of his absent leadership abilities. It’s his second one in recent weeks, counting the amendatory veto Quinn used to challenge the legislature’s concealed-carry law, which is right out of Blagojevich’s playbook, for similar reasons:

The Governor’s office has said that his amendatory vetoes—part of a campaign the administration calls “Rewrite to Do Right"—are the only way to get these tough new ethics and campaign finance measures into law. It says that it can’t introduce these measures as bills because they will never get a vote in the House, which is controlled by Blagojevich’s arch rival, House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Give Blago credit: he had a nice little tagline for it. And give Quinn credit: the seamless rejection of his amendatory veto evidenced that the legislature can, in fact, do stuff rather quickly.

And it worked, apparently:

What does Jell-O look like as it grows a spine?

It looks like Gov. Pat Quinn.

[snip]

Now if they want to get paid, they’ll start scribbling out a new pension plan. Perhaps they’ll do it on the back of a napkin, and announce some kind of victory.

The irony of this, as Edward McClelland points out, is that Quinn slashed salaries 33 years ago and, in a further fit of populist pique, implemented the Cutback Amendment, which is often credited with allowing Illinois Democrats to consolidate power in a smaller, less ideologically diverse legislature: “Before the Cutback Amendment, most districts included members of both parties. The legislature was not as ideologically polarized, and the leaders didn’t have as much control over their caucuses. Michael Madigan was elected speaker of the new, smaller house, and has been accumulating power ever since.”

For example:

“The Cutback contributed to shaping the political dynamic we have now, which is a very leadership-dominated process,” said Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a longtime state government analyst. “It made it easier to consolidate power in the House. It certainly made it easier for (House Speaker Michael) Madigan to dominate the House than prior to the Cutback.”

[snip]

“The House prior to Cutback was a much more diverse body with a much more wide-open process,” Redfield said. “With cumulative voting, there might have been some Green Party members in the legislature right now.”

I was thinking about this as I read Rich Miller’s most recent column, on Quinn’s rush to pass a pension bill now-now-now:

Quinn’s budget director recently submitted a list of pension reform “scenarios” to the special legislative committee tasked with coming up with a solution. Nobody knows how much those ideas will save because the actuaries haven’t finished studying them.

It would be just plain stupid to pass a pension-reform bill before anybody even knew what it would save, but Quinn went ahead and vetoed legislator salaries even though his own new plan hadn’t even been vetted.

Miller’s explanation is that Quinn wants to mollify the market, whose risk premiums are indeed real, if excessively harsh. But it’s not exactly true that legislators “continue to ignore the debt,” as John Kass writes; this year the legislature reduced a wide range of pension-reform options from numerous legislators to, essentially, two, which managed to pass each half of the legislature, nontrivial progress given the complexity of reducing a multibillion-dollar liability decades into the future while (theoretically) passing muster under the country’s most restrictive constitutional pension rules and getting (some) labor buy-in. Perhaps Quinn’s stunt will get the legislature back to passing both the Cullerton and Madigan bills and letting the courts decide between them (or on neither, which is a possibility). But beware pols bearing populist cudgels—they’ve backfired before.

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