As lawmakers left a one-day special session on public employee pension reform that went nowhere fast, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn indicated he would be taking it old school.
Back in the 1970s, Quinn was a populist organizer known for launching petition drives to cut the size of the Legislature and starting tea-bag protests over legislative pay. Now he says he'll use similar techniques to try to drive movement on a long-elusive state worker retirement overhaul.
"I've been an organizer over my time in life, public life, and we're going to bring together the people of our state in a mighty way that makes sure the voice of the taxpayer is heard," Quinn told reporters Friday.
Regardless of whether Quinn's throwback style still can motivate the public, the political inertia over the nation's most underfunded public pension system might move voters. The lack of a solution before the election means it's bound to be a top campaign issue as all 177 House and Senate seats are on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The flurry of finger-pointing Friday shows there will be plenty of blame to go around.
Republicans said they wanted comprehensive pension reform involving state workers, suburban and downstate teachers, higher education employees, and themselves. When a bill to overhaul only legislative pensions was proposed by Democrats, they called it a political trap and an unrealistic plan. Many House GOP members did not support it.
Democratic leaders who control the General Assembly said they are committed to reforming a system that faces, at best, an unfunded liability totaling $83 billion owed to current and future retirees. But in making changes, Democrats also would alienate a key voting constituency in organized labor.
And Quinn, who called the special session with grandiose designs for a comprehensive pension overhaul, never got an agreement from the four legislative leaders. As he spoke of trying to work together, the Democratic governor accused Republicans of "sabotaging" pension reform even as he watered down his efforts to ask lawmakers to consider only altering their own pension plan.
"It's pretty clear to me that we're not going to continue to engage with Republican leaders who are not sincere about voting for public pension reform," Quinn said. "We're not going to let them just deny and delay."
In the end, a day that began with one lawmaker calling it an "exercise in futility" before the session began only raised the question of why it took the General Assembly four hours to call it quits with nothing to show for it — except collecting about $41,000 in daily stipends and mileage.
Even if it passed, the legislative pension initiative, which would alter the pension benefits of current and past lawmakers and eliminate pensions for future ones, would have made little dent in the unfunded liability.
Democrats who pushed the plan hailed it largely for its symbolism: showing voters that they would clean their own house before addressing those of other public employees.
But in a climate of winner-take-all politics, credibility and trust was not to be found — especially when lawmakers tossed around the word "frustration" like it was a pork-barrel re-election project for their district.
Even before a roll call vote had been taken on the measure, Rep. Carol Sente, D-Vernon Hills, handed out a news release touting her vote in favor of the plan, saying the "General Assembly has led by example." But the effort stalled without a final House vote. Sente is running against Republican Rep. Sid Mathias of Buffalo Grove.
Rep. Tim Schmitz, R-Batavia, called the measure "a complete joke," noting that one of the reasons Quinn called lawmakers into session was to ward off the credit rating agencies. Schmitz said the bond houses would likely scoff at the $111 million dent the legislative pension bill would have made.
Even some Democratic lawmakers acknowledged the last-ditch measure was only an effort at political protection from a public that often questions whether they have the will to reform their own pensions as well as those of public employees.
"This is window dressing for political campaigns," said Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago. "It does not begin to address the problem."
Some lawmakers said they believe voters are seeing through the political gamesmanship on pensions and want to see results instead of rhetoric.
"I think the point of using pensions in the political process, we're past that," said Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. "There is an angry, angry mob that's living in the state of Illinois that's had it with the Legislature."
Perhaps in an era of tea party politics helping to drive Republicans in the national debate over the size and cost of government, the Democratic governor and his tea-bag protests may be back in vogue after all.