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Pension Reform Fails in Illinois

If Governor Pat Quinn is to be believed, this week was a deciding moment for the state of Illinois, whose pension woes have become so bad that even the state’s staunch Democratic leadership agrees that pension reform is a top priority. But by Wednesday morning, nothing had been achieved, and senators began to pack their bags and clear town as the lame-duck session in Springfield winds to a close. The New York Times reports:

As the lame-duck legislative session drew to a close on Tuesday evening, there was no deal. Lawmakers began talking optimistically about how they would keep searching for a fix to the nation’s most underfinanced state public pension system during a new session in the months ahead. And the shortfall in the state’s pension systems, now about $96 billion, will keep right on mounting at a rate, according to an estimate by Gov. Pat Quinn, of $17 million a day. [ . . . ]

“Some compromises were made, but apparently not enough to pass a bill,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Michael J. Madigan, a Democrat and the longtime speaker of the Illinois House. “It’s another way of demonstrating just how contentious this issue is.”

The lame-duck session looked like the best chance to pass a reform bill, as undecided legislators, especially retiring ones, could vote without the worry of political repercussions. After this week, the state house will be filled with new lawmakers more concerned about their political future and wary of striking a deal that could jeopardize the support of state unions in future elections.

The public-sector unions have escaped this legislative session without any significant changes to pension rules, and they have a number of things going for them as the new crop of lawmakers takes office. But they shouldn’t let their guard down just yet: Illinois’ pension problems are so severe that the state’s leadership cannot afford to ignore it, and Governor Quinn has made it clear that pensions will remain a top priority in 2013.

Illinois has kicked the can a little farther down the highway of good intentions; at the end of the road will be pain for pensioners, taxpayers and those who depend on the services that governments provide.

Expect more squalling and misery in Illinois politics as time goes by. The longer the pension problem goes unresolved, the harder and more painful the fix will finally be.

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