06/21/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Madigan stares, unions don't blink

To witness Tuesday evening's hearing before the Illinois House Personnel and Pension Committee was to see, played out in real time, the essence of the General Assembly's pension impasse. It was a bit out of the ordinary, as this was a committee hearing that would not conclude with a committee vote.

It simply was a chance for supporters of a pension reform backed by public employee unions to, again, state why their bill is best and why the much stronger bill favored by House Speaker Michael Madigan is unconstitutional and worthless.

Seated at the witness table of the ornate Capitol hearing room was Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, flanked by lawyers and Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville, who supports the union bill.

Directly in front of him in the first row of committee member seats was Madigan. Madigan didn't say a word throughout the hour-long hearing. He literally scowled at Carrigan the entire time. (Sorry about the poor photo quality. It's a phone photo, but I think the scowl comes through.)


As I watched Madigan stare down Carrigan, I thought about this letter from Madigan to Carrigan and other union leaders back in January. At the time, the unions had just formed the We Are One Illinois coalition, and forwarded a plan that involved raising some taxes, adding some new ones and ending some tax breaks to come up with $2 billion more to put toward pensions.

It wasn't until Madigan shepherded his own pension reform bill through the House in the spring that the unions came up with their own bill, Senate Bill 2404, which found a strong supporter in Senate President John Cullerton and was the focus of Tuesday's hearing. Madigan's bill was resoundingly defeated in the Senate during the final week of the spring legislative session.

Madigan clearly was angry with the unions in January, and that anger did not appear to have abated this week.

There was a surreal quality to the whole exercise, like watching people who don't speak the same language attempt to communicate. There was no way Carrigan or any supporter of SB 2404 would recognize any discussion of the huge savings difference between their bill -- $46 billion over 30 years in a very optimistic scenario - and Madigan's bill -- $187 billion.

Carrigan repeatedly sounded the theme that Madigan's Senate Bill 1 is unconstitutional because it diminishes employee benefits, a clear violation of the Illinois Constitution. Therefore, he said, it saves the state nothing. Carrigan did not recognize the first nine pages of Madigan's bill, which lay out exactly why the benefit reductions are not only permissible, but necessary. Those pages spell out the defense that would be used in the eventual court case on SB 1.

Committee member Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, tried to make that point: "We're not diminishing benefits in Senate Bill 1," he said. "We are saving the system."

Nor was there any acknowledgement, as noted by Chairman Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, of the whopping pension bills that could await taxpayers under 2404. Nekritz noted that pensions easily could consume 20-25 percent of the state budget through the 2030s under SB 2404.

In a sense, I can understand the union position. They're like sports agents. They're there to get the best deal for their clients right now, not to do what's best for the team. (This, incidentally also is why the unions actually advocated for a pension holiday in 2005 that contributed to today's crisis. By shorting the pension, the state had money to avoid employee layoffs and fund education, which meant better pay for teachers.)

The problem is that the team in this case is everyone in Illinois, not some greedy owner.

Carrigan's refusal to acknowledge any benefit from SB 1 reveals the real trouble here. The union bill simply does not save the state money to end this crisis for good. In a decade or two, Illinois taxpayers again will be putting one in every four of their tax dollars directly into employee pensions. We'll struggle to fund schools and maintain roads and do all the things that a government is supposed to do.

And here's another surreal twist to all this. The unions have been emphatic that they will not sue the state only on the condition that their bill is passed completely intact, with no changes whatsoever. Asked by McSweeney if unions would negotiate a compromise, Carrigan said that would be a "difficult conversation" to have with his coalition.

In other words, we won't recognize anything in your bill as valid and you have to accept everything in ours. Or else. Quite a starting point for negotiations. (And remember, the Illinois Association of Retired Teachers already has said it will take the state to court no matter which bill passes.)

So now this goes to a 10-member House/Senate conference committee to attempt a settlement. After Tuesday's hearing, Madigan added to the surreal atmosphere by voicing his optimism that the committee will come up with an acceptable solution. (Again, sorry for the video quality; phone cam again.)

Gov. Pat Quinn has given the committee a deadline of July 9 to put a bill before the General Assembly. Surreal indeed.

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