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Democratic-led House fumbles yet again on pensions

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SPRINGFIELD-Thursday marked just another day at the office in the Democratic-led Illinois House, which sunk to new depths in futility in trying to solve the state's $97 billion pension crisis.

House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) set aside part of the day for the House to take test votes on four separate pension-reform ideas - ending annual retiree cost-of-living increases entirely, withholding those increases until the state's pension systems are 80-percent funded, boosting the retirement age to 67 and increasing employee pension contributions by another 5 percent per paycheck.

In order, here is how many votes each idea got: 2, 5, 1 and 3.

More than 60 of Madigan's House Democrats voted against each plan, and Republicans didn't vote at all, arguing the whole exercise was nothing more than a "charade" orchestrated by the speaker, who was the only "yes" vote on each measure.

Madigan, who presides over a 71- to 47-seat majority over Republicans in a chamber where it takes 60 votes to pass most things, has publicly said nothing of late himself about his intentions on the pension front -- let alone explain his purpose behind permitting Thursday's kamikaze pension roll calls.

"What are we doing here today? Illinois politics at its finest? Another day of games? Another day of waiting? Another day of putting off the inevitable on an issue that is not going away but that gets worse every single day we put it off?" House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) asked incredulously.

"We are sick and tired of this gamesmanship. Do we have to play politics 365 days of the year. Is that what it's become?" he continued.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), who presented the four amendments to the bills carrying Madigan's name, defended Thursday's approach.

"We don't have 60 votes on this yet, and we have to engage in a process that'll get us there. Maybe this isn't exactly what we want. We needed to shake things up. We need to do something a little different than what we've been doing," Nekritz told her colleagues.

"We have to get to something that we're for. If this is a process that can get us to something we're for, let's go ahead," she said.

With Madigan holding his chamber's gavel and building on his majority in November, the House failed to pass a pension package last May, during a special legislative session Gov. Pat Quinn called in August, during the fall veto session and during the early-January lame-duck session.

A Madigan spokesman said Thursday's votes still had a productive purpose, when asked by reporters how the inaction squared with the speaker's expectations.

"Well, I don't know that there were any expectations. But people always talk about that we need to have roll call because we've heard that debate, right? We've heard people complain about stifling bills, stifling amendments. So we're trying to offer an alternative this year on several significant issues. That'll continue," he said.

"We're still trying to find the plan that'll have 60 votes here, 30 votes in the Senate and the signature of the governor," Brown said.

The state's failure to act on pension reform has hit Illinois' pocketbook, with Standard & Poor's downgrading the state's bond rating to the lowest level of any state in the country because of the pension impasse. That move prompted Quinn's administration to put the brakes on a $500 million bond issue.

Thursday's spinning-in-place House session drew criticism and ridicule from at least one union leader.

"These new draconian proposals are not only grossly unjust, but worse yet, they don't even solve the problem. Illinois has a fiscal crisis, not a benefits crisis, and these amendments fail to address the root cause. Today's amendments are unfair, unconstitutional and unproductive," said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Contributing: Zach Buchheit

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