Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Pension Crisis Looms Over New Illinois General Assembly

Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Michael Madigan retain leadership posts

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Michael Madigan, John Cullerton retain leadership posts in bodies with veto-proof Democratic majorities. Still, Gov. Pat Quinn has a lot riding on digging the state out of the lowest bond rating in the nation. Mary Ann Ahern reports.

Members of the Illinois' 98th General Assembly took the oath of office Wednesday.

Among them were dozens of lawmakers who were elected to the House or Senate for the first time and three who face criminal charges.

The lawmakers come into office with a pension crisis, estimated at $98 billion in debt, hanging over their heads.

Both bodies now have a veto-proof Democratic majority. Still, Gov. Pat Quinn has a lot riding on digging the state out of the lowest bond rating in the nation.

"It won't immediately stop state government from spending money but it's going to make it much more expensive for state government to borrow, to basically invest in infrastructure and make other improvements," said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.

Union leaders like Henry Bayer, who represents 100,000 active and retired AFSCME members, want to play a role in negotiating pension changes.

Among Bayer's suggestions: collecting more income taxes from corporations in Illinois.

"Two-thirds of the corporations in this state don't pay a dime in corporate income taxes. They want an educated workforce and we need one, but they don't want to pay for education. They want infrastructure because they want to get their goods to market, but they don't want to pay for the roads. We can't have that anymore," he said.

Lawmakers are sending a gambling expansion bill to Quinn within the next 30 days which calls for slot machines at race tracks and airports, as well as a Chicago casino, but the governor doesn't want to move on that until the pension situation is resolved.

To that end, Quinn said many of the legislators sworn in Wednesday ran on platforms on pension reform. He said that should help "get the job done."

The previous General Assembly adjourned Tuesday without a pension deal.

Madigan, Cullerton Earn Additional Terms

The newly-inaugurated General Assembly retained its previous leaders. Senate President John Cullerton was chosen to serve a third two-year term and Michael Madigan was easily re-elected to another term as speaker of the Illinois House.

The November election delivered to Cullerton a 40-19 majority over Republicans. That's the most Democrats elected in the Illinois Senate in at least 120 years.

Cullerton's caucus members come not only from the Democratic stronghold of Chicago but from the far reaches of the state with varying philosophical ideas.

A lawyer and public defender, Cullerton, 64, has served in the Senate since 1991 after serving 12 years in the House.

Republican Sen. Christine Radogno was chosen as minority leader.

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has held the position of House speaker almost continuously since 1983. The exception was a two-year period in the 1990s when Republicans had control of the House.

Madigan is arguably the most powerful Democrat in Illinois. He also serves as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.

He is also a senior partner at a law firm in Chicago. One of his daughters is Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who was at Wednesday's ceremony.

Republican Tom Cross was re-elected minority leader.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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