After each sweeping and not-so-sweeping piece of pension legislation went nowhere during the General Assembly special session Friday Gov. Pat Quinn had a perhaps surprising response in regards to his next steps on pension reform – a “grassroots” campaign.
“I think there’s a lot of explaining to do to the voters and taxpayers back home if members of the Illinois House of Representatives are voting now on something as fundamental as reforming their own public pension system,” Quinn told reporters Friday (Capitol Fax provides a link here to the audio). “I think it’s time to get people involved.”
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the governor would not reveal full details on such a campaign until “mid-September after 9/11” and the Democratic and Republican Party national conventions. Anderson provided a history of successful grassroots efforts undertaken by Quinn prior to assuming public office. These include the 1980 Cutback Amendment that effectively reduced membership in the Illinois House from 177 to 118 representatives.
But Quinn’s pronouncement of a grassroots effort on pensions should raise eyebrows for a couple of key reasons.
First, a prevailing theme after Friday’s one-day special session is that Quinn failed to communicate not with ordinary Illinois voters, but the very state lawmakers he must work with to strike a pension deal.
A Chicago Tribune headline Saturday read, “Lawmakers can’t agree on pension reform, blame Quinn.” In the piece both State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), a main Democratic architect of pension legislation, and State Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), the Republican Senate leader, blasted Quinn for not taking the time necessary to work with legislators.
In a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed Saturday, Mark Brown noted that prior to the special session Quinn went more than six weeks without gathering legislative leaders together to talk pensions.
What the governor has been doing is making a number of speeches about the need to fix the state’s estimated $83 pension liability, like a talk at the Chicago Commercial Club three weeks ago and Illinois state fair last Wednesday. Speeches are different from grassroots campaigns. But the point is that Quinn has already been making his case to the public, while perhaps not meeting enough with legislators.
Second and most important, there already is a grassroots campaign on pensions, albeit a campaign vociferously opposed to Quinn’s proposals. The campaig has been taking place for over a year by the We Are One coalition of Illinois unions. We Are One members were working in full force last week lustily booing Quinn at the state fair Wednesday and making their presence felt outside and inside the capitol building Friday.
We Are One argues that cuts to current employees and retirees are unfair because these employees should not be penalized for past elected officials robbing the state’s pension funds. The coalition put forward a plan last week in which current employees would increase their contributions based on certain conditions, such as the end of some Illinois corporate tax breaks.
Coalition member Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, takes exception to Quinn's promised grassroots campaign.
"The grassroots are anyone who is, knows or counts on a teacher, police officer, caregiver or other public employee -- that is all of us," Lindall wrote in an e-mail. "They have already spoken loudly in the form of hundreds of thousands of calls, emails, letters and rallies, opposing Quinn's unfair and unconstitutional cuts that would burden middle class retirees with the politicians' debt while protecting special loopholes for big corporations."
Further, Lindall says that Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, who convened the coalition, called Quinn back in May and offered "to sit down and work together on a pension funding solution," but that the governor never returned Carrigan's call.
Quinn spokeswoman Anderson says the governor welcomes union input and would “continue to listen to proposals that are serious” from labor. But last week’s We Are One framework was not such a plan, according to the governor’s office. “That is not a feasible proposal,” Anderson says.