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Pension vote could alter Illinois governor’s race

December 4, 2013

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Some longtime labor supporters chided Gov. Pat Quinn Wednesday over his legislative victory on a pension crisis he said he was “put on earth” to solve, a signal of the murky impact the landmark vote could have on next year’s Illinois governor’s race.

The Democratic governor’s re-election hopes would seem to get a boost from the Legislature’s approval Tuesday of a plan he embraced that eliminates a massive unfunded liability by cutting benefits for workers and retirees. However, there also were signs of erosion in his already complicated relationship with unions — though it wasn’t clear just how much.

The single biggest contributor to Quinn’s war chest, the Service Employees International Union, told The Associated Press that there could be “two big strikes” against endorsing Quinn for governor in November. Besides Quinn’s support for the $160 billion savings plan, he also has been under fire from the union for considering signing legislation that would alter the pensions of Chicago Park District employees. Quinn is expected to sign state pension legislation early as Thursday in quiet ceremony, a nod to the political sensitivity of the issue affecting employees across the state.

As for whether he can count on the union’s support next November, Adam Rosen, a spokesman for one union local said it was “completely up in the air.” The labor union has endorsed Quinn and former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the past, but also has endorsed former Republican governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan, Rosen said.

The union sent members an email Tuesday reminding them that a “yes” vote on pension reform “means a ‘no’ vote on Election Day,” though whether that will translate into any sort of noticeable bump for the eventual Republican nominee remains unclear.

The political impact of the vote could be felt just as much in the Republican primary as any impact on Quinn. The four candidates in the GOP primary field took vastly different approaches on pensions — at least in tone. They ranged from Sen. Bill Brady’s ardent support for the package to venture capitalist Bruce Rauner’s aggressive calls for lawmakers to vote it down.

Rosen told the AP the union has met with two Republican gubernatorial bidders seeking future endorsements. Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard and state treasurer Dan Rutherford both spoke out against the pension plan, which passed by narrow margins. Quinn says he plans to sign it when it reaches his desk.

The legislation would push back workers’ retirement age on a sliding scale, a funding guarantee, a 401(k)-style option. The annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases for retirees will be replaced with a system that only provides the increases on a portion of benefits, based on how many years a beneficiary was in their job.

Quinn has been championing pension reform for years, going so far as to halt lawmakers’ pay — and his own — this summer until a solution was in hand.

Despite angering major campaign contributors, political analyst Thom Serafin notes the passage of the legislation comes off as a political win for the Chicago Democrat in the same year the governor signed into law a measure legalizing gay marriage.

“Quinn has had a tremendous legislative year,” Serafin said. “He’s made every effort to make this his keynote moment. He looks strong going into November with a major piece of legislation behind him.”

Serafin said he thinks Brady, a Bloomington Republican who helped negotiate the package, will actually benefit more than he loses in the Republican primary because he took a decisive stance.

While Rauner’s vocal opposition to the pension plan didn’t prevent its passage, but his strong statements may work to his advantage in a GOP primary, says Pat Brady, a former Illinois GOP chairman.

Decrying the plan as a “band-aid on an open wound,” Rauner is taking a position that solidifies him as the leader of fiscal conservatives in the race, Brady said.

Harsh criticism of Rauner’s involvement on the pension plan from top Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, can also play well in the March race, working to erode an idea that Rauner is “cozy” with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other top Democrats whose campaigns contributed to over the years.

Rauner toughened his rhetoric on the legislation Wednesday.

“It does too little to fix our pension mess, there is no relief in sight for taxpayers and state government and the economy remain broken,” Rauner said in a statement provided to the AP. He blasted “Springfield insiders” who are “congratulating themselves because they think they’ve fixed their political problems.”

Dillard of Hinsdale’s fundraising numbers trail behind both Rauner’s and Rutherford’s. He may see a much-needed boost to his war chest after voting against Tuesday’s bill, but at the same time, could risk being painted as pandering to labor for the money.

Rutherford, of Chenoa, was the only one of the four GOP candidates who did not take on the merits of the legislation directly. In a statement he simply noted he “doesn’t believe the legislation will stand judicial review.”

Brady called that an “avoidance tactic” and a “much weaker approach” on the issue than the other candidates in the field.

“In this environment, people are clamoring for reform,” Brady said.

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