June 11, 2013
Governor Quinn now says he will withhold pay for state legislators until they pass a pension reform bill. Reaction is generally positive, most commentators saying this is smart politics and a good way to pressure lawmakers, though probably unconstitutional — but never mind that technicality.
Shame on Illinois. This is a dangerous gimmick. There’s a profoundly important principle behind the Illinois’ constitutional provision that says “changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected” — separation of powers. Quinn has one insight about Illinois voters which accounts for his longevity in politics: that voters are more gullible than is commonly understood and that gullibility can be exploited with gimmicks. He’s saying a governor can cancel paychecks for legislators who do or don’t do what he wants, a frightening precedent. All Illinoisans who made it through grade school civics should be appalled, but they aren’t. And only minor pension reform will result because that’s all the union-controlled legislature is prepared eventually to give.
If Quinn wanted real pension reform here’s what he would have said: “No more state contributions to pensions until the pensions are completely reformed.”
Yes, he is authorized to do that and, yes, it would be appropriate. Illinois governors cannot appropriate money but they can keep it from being spent, except on bond payments. Payments from the pensions to retirees cannot constitutionally be diminished or impaired, but state contributions to the pensions are not forced by the constitution or statute. Had he threatened to stop them, union bosses and the legislature they control would be rushing to negotiate real reform, the pensions would be fixed, and no halt to a reformed system would have to materialize. Unions know that constitutional rights to payments from pension funds with no money aren’t worth anything.
This power of the governor over payments is why the “guaranty” provisions in pension reform proposals are so pernicious and why unions demand them. If enacted, that power ends. The guaranties will force automatic contributions the way bond payments are now forced. Even if we elect a governor with the character to truly take on the pension problem, he will be hamstrung. He will need both houses of the legislature free of union control and willing to overturn the guaranties, which we are not likely to get.
Quinn will get a pension bill. It won’t come close to ending the pension crisis, but Quinn, the legislature and the unions will gloat “Problem Solved!” Voters will probably cheer, because Quinn’s insight about them is right. For a while. Until the real numbers and the real effect of the guaranties become apparent.