Who gets it done first? Who will pay?
Those are the big questions for Pat Quinn, Toni Preckwinkle and Rahm Emanuel as they converge on solutions to our pension crisis — and how to pay for it.
Illinois politicians have long been a national butt of jokes about corruption, incompetence and greed.
When it comes to pension reform, however, I give this unlikely trio kudos for stepping up and taking the heat. We must fix our broken system, meet the obligations we can, and modify the ones we can’t.
Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly pushed through pension reform last year. Now Quinn is pushing to make a 2011 state income tax increase permanent, while also calling for property tax relief. He hopes voters will not detect the irony.
Last week, after an embarrassingly false start, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed his pension reform package through the Legislature. Though this is not written into the bill, it relies on a $250 million property tax increase for Chicago.
Quinn must review and sign the bill into law within 60 days. It looks like he will take his sweet time while the mayor hangs in the wind.
Then came word that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is tailoring a pension package for county workers. It will reduce cost-of-living benefits and raise the retirement age and worker contributions, according to news reports. Her plan is expected to surface in Springfield soon.
Even at the county level, it’s big money. The total county budget is $3.2 billion. Its retirement system is underfunded by twice that — $6.8 billion.
Preckwinkle won’t say where the money will come from, and she won’t rule out tax increases. “Everything is on the table,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Meanwhile, elections are coming up fast. This trio is climbing to a treacherous precipice.
Quinn is already wearing the jacket for daring to call for an extension of the state’s temporary income tax. If he signs Emanuel’s bill, he will be seen as endorsing a property tax increase for Chicago homeowners, the heart of his political base.
The clock is ticking, drumming, toward the Feb. 24 citywide elections. If Quinn does sign off, Emanuel will try to ram a property tax increase through the City Council just months before members must stand for re-election.
The aldermanic aspirants are lining up so fast, I need a computer program to keep track.
If Preckwinkle goes for a tax increase, she has the least to lose. She faces no opponent in her November bid for re-election.
And Preckwinkle, my sources tell me, is in the best shape on the union front. She has been meeting with the union leadership for weeks, mulling over various options and scenarios. When her news of her pension strategy broke last week, the unions did not respond with their usual outright hostility. Her big cheerleader (and Emanuel’s arch enemy) is the Chicago Teachers Union.
But if she decides to take on Emanuel in the 2014 mayoral contest, she will have her own tax increase to defend.
In an election year, will the taxpayers, workers, unions and voters tolerate the necessary pain? Or will they throw all the bums out?
It’s a long, long fall from that precipice.