Mike Madigan sounds off on Illinois pension problem

October 25, 2012 11:40:16 AM PDT
Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan is arguably the most powerful politician in the state, and he rarely grants extended interviews.

Wednesday, Speaker Madigan sounded off on the state's multi-billion dollar pension problem and those who say he is the real obstacle to reform in Springfield.

Governors come and go, but the one constant in Springfield is Mike Madigan. He has been speaker of the Illinois House for 27 of the 42 years he has held office in Springfield.

Madigan is also chairman of the state Democratic party. Little happens without his approval. And that includes the ticking time bond that is Illinois' pension system.

The numbers are staggering: $85 billion in unfunded pension liability, $8 billion in other unpaid bills. A new report puts it bluntly: "Illinois has been doing backflips on a high wire, without a net."

"There's just too many people in the legislature that don't want to do the heavy lifting of legislating," said Madigan. "They want to go there and talk among themselves. They want to talk to people you and say the right things for your consumption; but then when it comes time to cast a difficult vote they're in the bathroom somewhere."

House Speaker Mike Madigan, like almost every other state official, admits there is a real need for pension reform.

What they don't agree on is how to do it.

Democrats think the state's universities, community colleges and local school districts should pay for the pensions of their own employees. Currently, the state does, and Madigan says it account for 75 percent of the state's annual pension payments.

"People are spending the money and sending the bill to someone else. It's not a good policy anywhere, especially in government," said Madigan.

Experts outlined the state's budget blues at a meeting Wednesday. They say the solutions involve deeps cuts, more taxes and perhaps taking away some benefits already promised.

"The state of Illinois, like many states, is on an unsustainable course," said Richard Ravitch of the State Budget Crisis Task Force. "There's a lot of pain on getting back on a serious, rationale course so we don't end up in a disaster."

"Out of $33 billion in the general revenue fund, we're paying $5 billion in pension costs," said Abdon Pallasch of the governor's budget office. "That's just going to go up a billion a year, leaving very little for taking care of the sick and elderly and everything else we do."

Who is to blame for this mess? Madigan says, "Not me."

"I just stood for election in the primary. I stand for election in two weeks," said Madigan. "So the voters in my district will render a judgment on me, and then I'll stand for judgment among my peers in January. So, I'll run through three elections in about a year's time. If that's not accountability, then what is accountability?"

In less than two weeks, voters go to the polls and pick legislators.

Pension reform could come up in a lame duck veto session a month from now, but more likely, it will get punted to the new legislative session in January.


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