Nearly 20 Percent of Illinois' Budget to Go to Pensions

Gov. Quinn's response to lack of reform


The many moods of Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn
"The Nightmare Before Christmas," Touchstone Pictures

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn appears to have given up in actually leading any sort of pension reform in his state and instead today is introducing a $35.6 billion budget that will boost pension spending to consume 19 percent of the budget in order to meet obligations. Via the Chicago Sun-Times:

[W]hile the Quinn administration forecasts $817 million in new revenues coming into state coffers during the budget year beginning July 1, all of that money and more — $929 million — will go toward paying for added pension costs.

The Sun-Times notes that while the education spending will increase $500 million, that money won't go to actual school operations. Actual spending on the day-to-day operation of public schools and universities will drop by $400 million:

"These are not reductions the governor would like to see happen. He'd prefer we go the other way, but these are the direct results of inaction" on pensions, Jerry Stermer, Quinn's budget director, told reporters during a Tuesday evening budget briefing.

While Quinn decries the lack of action by the legislature, he hasn't exactly been a model for leadership. As I've repeatedly noted, what little pension reform California has managed on the state level involved a direct plan put forth by Gov. Jerry Brown. Quinn's most recent (and very bizarre) proposal involved creating an unelected and unaccountable commission to deal with the pension crisis so that he doesn't have to.

He may perhaps hope that presenting a budget like this will force the state legislature's hand, but legislators (sadly) have much less of an incentive to stand up to the public employee unions than the governor. It's harder for voters to observe and hold legislators accountable for state budgeting. Going against the unions is probably much riskier for a Democratic legislature candidate when the lower-turnout, get-out-the-vote-dependent primaries come around. It's really hard to visualize public pension reform happening without strong state executive branch involvement.

Even as Californians voted in a Democratic supermajority into the legislature in November (just like Illinois), a Reason-Rupe poll from last year (pdf) showed state voters want to reduce government spending, reduce the number of government employees, and push state employees into 401(k)-style retirement funds to limit government liability. Even though voters went with Democrats, they still want pension changes.