Pension Overhaul - Updated
7:23 am
Tue October 15, 2013

Gov. Quinn "AWOL" From Pension Committee's Talks

The ten members of the bipartisan, bicameral conference committee formed to come up with a pension package gather in Chicago in July, for one of the panel's few public meetings. Gov. Pat Quinn did not attend.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

As he runs for re-election, Gov. Pat Quinn is staking a lot on getting something done with pensions. He making a show of asking the state Supreme Court let him cancel legislators' salaries until it's done, and he says he won't deal with other major issues before the General Assembly -- like using tax credits to keep ADM headquartered in Illinois -- until there's what he calls a "comprehensive pension solution." But it's hard to tell just what that means. Most of the ten legislators he tasked with crafting that solution don't even seem to know. They say he's been largely absent ... until this month.  Amanda Vinicky checked in with the ten representatives and senators on a special pension committee to see how involved the governor has been as they negotiate a pension deal.

Extended length feature story on Gov. Quinn's interactions with the pension conference committee

To hear Gov. Pat Quinn talk, he's in the thick of efforts to deal with Illinois' pensions. The state's retirement systems rank as the worst-funded-in the nation. He has said he was "put on this earth" to solve what he has said is the biggest crisis facing the state. After the General Assembly failed to get it done during the regular session that ended in May, Quinn called lawmakers back to Springfield in late June to form a special, bipartisan committee, made up of an equal number of members from the House and Senate, to break the gridlock.

"Now is the time, the moment in history, this is the moment, to resolve and solve this pension challenge. And so I'm prepared to work with the good members of... this conference committee, and their leaders, to get it done," Quinn said then.

The Gov. has begun to do that this month: his office says in October, he met with four Democrats on the pension committee; he's scheduled to meet soon with a few of the Republican members.

But for the first several months of the committee's existence, he took a hands-off approach that one of the four Republican members of the panel, Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, described as "AWOL."

"I personally have had no interaction with him, on a personal level at all," Murphy said last month.

Murphy clarifies that Quinn called him, back in June, when he was first appointed to the panel, to thank him for serving on it.

"He did call at that point, but other than that initial outreach, which contained no substance either, he really has not been an active partner in this process at all. Or an inactive partner, frankly. He's really been a non-entity," he said.

It's a similar story for Republican Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy. "Initially the governor had called all of us personally and said, 'You know, I'm going to be there, we're going to get this worked out, it's gotta be done.' That was very good. But it's been dead space since then," she said.

Likewise, Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said Quinn has not been helpful.

"I've reached out to him a couple times, and we've asked his office to have him come to a couple meetings and ... no response,"  Brady said.

Granted, that's coming from Republicans; one could argue that Brady and Tracy especially have a vested interest in making Quinn, a Democrat, look bad. Brady's trying to take Quinn's job -- he's running for the GOP nomination for governor -- and Tracy's the running mate of another GOP candidate for governor, Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale. But at the committee's three month mark, on and around Sept. 19, members of the governor's party also say they'd had little to no interaction with him.

-Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Hillside: "I know I haven't had a meeting with him about pensions ... I don't know that other members have either ... since the conference committee was formed."

-Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook: "It has been so long since I have spoken with the governor, I can't remember when it was, I think it was probably back in June, was the last time I spoke with the governor about this."

-and Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston: "He called me to thank me for accepting the appointment when it was first made in June, we had a very nice conversation for about two minutes, and that's ... well I suppose I bumped into him at a few events and we've shaken hands, since then, at least twice."

Biss and Nekritz say the conference committee has done fine without a steady presence from Quinn, but another panel member, Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, said "I think as the executive it would have helped to have him there, and feel that he played more of a leadership role ... as an executive in this."

After all, if the conference committee settles on a plan, and it gets through the full House and Senate, Quinn would ultimately have to sign a pension overhaul into law, so Holmes said it would be good to know where he stands. Holmes said it's not enough that the governor's budget director, Jerry Stermer, testified at one of the committee's early, public meetings, back on July 8, "who basically just said 'what the governor wants is comprehensive pension reform', and we could get very little detail out of him at that point."

At that time, the Chairman of the conference committee, Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, was frustrated with Stermer and Quinn - at Stermer for not providing any specifics about what the governor wanted out of a pension deal and at Quinn for not showing up to say that himself. Raoul said things have changed since "that tense moment."

"There has been progress as to how we've communicated, comparatively, from what the process was at the outset. Mr. Stermer has certainly reached out to me, and I've done the same," he said.

Raoul said he has met periodically with Stermer to update him on the committee's activities, and to get the governor's temperature.

"At this point, I have had what I need in terms of communication and getting signals from the governor's office," Raoul said. "I don't necessarily need to feel coddled or anything by the governor or anything, or that I need to have a daily meeting directly with the governor. I imagine he has other things to tend to."

Gov. Quinn has previously rebuffed questions about a lack of involvement with the pension group, inferring that it's not the chief executive's place;  in August when he was in Springfield for the Illinois State Fair, he said, "I have a budget director (Stermer) who has worked on this issue from Day One.  I work with him, and he works with them.  You know, it's a legislative conference committee. And I know that they're going to get their work done because they understand how important it is for the state."

In recent weeks, however, it appears Quinn has finally taken at least a somewhat more active role with the conference committee. He has met with some of the committee's members and is scheduled to have at least one more.

"I've had good conversations with them, and I've seen a lot of information that they've put forth," Gov. Quinn said Monday. "Yeah - I think they've made progress."

Rep. Zalewski, for instance, can no longer say that he hasn't talked with Quinn about Illinois' retirement systems since June -- he's one of the Democrats who met with the governor in October. "There's been uh, engagement from the governor's office, to a certain extent, in the last couple of weeks, where you know, everyone sort of realizes we hopefully, we're moving toward a resolution in short order ... and to the extent we can have everyone's help in ... making that happen ... we're always out looking for a helpful hand," Zalewski said Friday.

Quinn's press team says the governor switched course, and is now reaching out, because negotiations have gone on too long and he's anxious to see something done about pensions.  Spokesman Dave Blanchette says Quinn let Stermer and staff of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget handle talks with the pension committee until this point because "they know the numbers ... it's meat and potatoes financial stuff."

Regardless of whether the governor has been as involved as he claims to have been, the consensus on the committee seems to be that it might not have made a difference, and it may not should Quinn get more involved going forward.

"In a general sense with an issue that's this difficult politically, it would really be helpful to have the weight and credibility of the office of the governor heavily involved in crafting the solution," Sen. Murphy said. "Unfortunately, the current governor has not been held in terribly high regard in the General Assembly, frankly, by members of either party, so I don't know how much assistance, frankly, he would be able to provide."

Either way, it's doubtful the Governor's involvement -- or lack thereof -- will hurt him come next year's election. If a deal is reached, he takes credit for the achievement; if lawmakers fail to come up with a plan, Quinn can continue his attack on them, having distanced himself just enough. Neither a bad outcome for a governor trying for re-election.

**The print version of this story was updated to include additional reaction from the governor's office.**