And so I ask you… as our greatest president Abraham Lincoln asked in this year’s film:  “Shall we stop this bleeding?” —Pat Quinn, 2/6/13

Today Pat Quinn laid out his proposal for "the most difficult budget Illinois has ever faced… only a preview of the pain that is to come if this General Assembly does not act decisively on comprehensive pension reform." In short, the ball's back in the legislature's court. As the State Journal-Register's Chris Wetterich puts it, "Looks like another session where the House basically writes the budget." (Wetterich, who's well worth following on Twitter, also has some other good stuff, including Michael Madigan's criticism of the Elaine Nekritz/Tom Cross pension bill. It might not sound like much, but pension reform is a game of inches right now. Maybe centimeters.)

Quinn basically said the same thing with damnably faint praise: "Thank you, leaders, for expressing your desire to do something about this crisis."

But he did give some guidance for the legislature towards pension reform. It's nothing you haven't heard before—there really aren't that many approaches—but it does at least put Quinn on the record for his current preferences:

These adjustments should include reforms to the pension cost of living adjustment. The COLA is currently 3% compounded annually. That’s unsustainable for taxpayers.

For those with higher pensions, the cost of living adjustment should be suspended until the entire pension system achieves better balance. 

The basic pension amount that has already been accrued by our current and former employees should not be touched. 

But the pension reform solution should include cost of living adjustments going forward.

Michael Zalewski noted that the COLA freeze would be a "tough sell" because of its possible constitutional conflict, and because "many feel it's too onerous." With regards to the former concern, he's right; but almost anything the state does as far as pension reform is going to be a tough sell to the courts, as I've explained before.

The Trib previewed Quinn's speech with its cuts to education—$278 million, or 5.2 percent with an expected increase in federal funds of one percent—but the specifics of it didn't come up in the address. And in the budget book itself (PDF), the big cuts come in the broadest, most general areas: $150 million in "general state aid," $163 million in "state-wide district support services." Total educational and secondary expenditures would increase, however: the Teachers' Retirement System would get a $738 million bump in general funds.

The consensus of immediate reactions from the Capitol Fax commentariat, usually a good gauge of what reasonably engaged people think of what's going on, is… surprisingly positive: "best budget address yet"; "concise and focused"; "right tone"; "not too many squirrels, which is rare for him." If the House ultimately has to do the math, it freed up Quinn to blast away.


Photograph: aka Kath (CC by 2.0)