Would members of the Illinois State Legislature risk a shutdown of state government or a state government default in pursuit of principles?
In Washington DC, Congress has stepped out on the precipice of disaster. The shutdown of the federal government is creating pockets of problems for people--from South Dakota ranchers stranded in a snowstorm to newlyweds unable to process their new names with Social Security to working mothers struggling to find day care because their local Head Start centers are closed. The federal argument began when one side declared that they would not pass a budget if it included funding for the Affordable Care Act. But this week, constituents including the business community expressed their dismay and polls reported that most of the public blamed the Republicans for the shut-down. Some began to retreat on their position. Then the Democrats, smelling blood, took up the fight and began asking for changes to Sequestration decisions before they would sign off on a deal.
As I write this, it looks like the Congress is coming to consensus around a plan to reopen the federal government and extend its borrowing authority over the next few months. This is good news. But the bad--or principled--behavior of Congress, depending on your perspective, has had consequences. Economists say that there has been extensive damage to growth, employment, and interest rates.
Would the Illinois Legislature--leaders and sub-caucuses--go that far to be true to their positions?
No. Leadership of the Legislature would not put the State at risk of such disaster, nor allow their members to do so. Members of the Legislature go through a vetting process by their political parties in order to secure resources--funding and campaign power--to be elected. Some can and do go it alone but few choose to do so. From time to time, there are flashes of independence from the sub-caucuses who have the potential power to derail decision-making. But the smaller groups within the Democrat and Republican parties would all concede rather than then shut down state government. There is something to be said for party discipline.
How far will state politicians be willing to go to pass a pension reform bill if it means angering the Chicago Tribune and the Civic Committee because the proposal doesn't cut deeply enough into pension benefits or angering the unions because it cuts too deeply? Legislators frame their positions as principles: to save the State from fiscal disaster by significantly reducing benefits or to respect state employees who have paid their pension payments every year and are now the fall guys because legislators and Governors chose not to pay the government share into the pension funds? One approach calls for deep cuts; the other for new taxes to pay for the shortfall created by fiscal irresponsibility. Status quo means state resources are being squeezed by the growing pension liabilities, now approaching $100 million.
Our precipice is not the State Budget or the State's borrowing authority but rather the pension debt. How close to this precipice will the State of Illinois need to be before a plurality of state legislators comes to a compromise position on pension reform, the leadership allows them to vote on the bill, and the Governor signs the bill?