Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2013, 2:55 pm

Editorial: Wanted: A few Nixons

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

"Only a Nixon could go to China," has become a political axiom.

The metaphor arose from the belief that only a conservative, anti-communist like the Republican president could have successfully visited that nation and opened its doors at that time in history. There is validity to the notion that reforms are best led by those who are strong supporters of the organizations or ideas in need of change.

Does it follow that only an Illinois General Assembly led and dominated by pro-union Democrats can fix the pension mess? We hope so. Because the price of continued inaction is too frightening to ponder.

A week removed from a session that some thought to be the last, best hope for aggressive reform is a good time to take stock of where we must go now to fix a $96 billion pension underfunding problem that grows by more than $17 million each day. By the end of the spring legislative session in May, it is estimated that the hole will be another $2.45 billion deeper.

Pension payments already hog 16 percent of the state budget, crowding out needs along with wishes, and Illinois' credit rating continues its steep decline. On Friday Fitch Ratings became another major credit rating agency to declare Illinois' financial outlook "negative".

It is against that backdrop that Illinoisans Wednesday saw sworn in a near-record 71 Democrats in the House and 40 in the Senate. Many of them, like the Q-C's new state Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, got there with financial backing of public employee unions and the votes of their members. Our hope is that among them are leaders who, like President Nixon, believe the time for tough choices has come.

"There is greatness within and around all of you in this chamber, and we're going to need it," Democrat Senate President John Cullerton said a week ago today. "My advice is to enjoy today and celebrate with your families, but you must know that tough decisions and votes await us in the weeks and months ahead."

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn tried to put a positive spin on the Legislature's failure to meet to yet another of his reform deadlines. "A lot of the (new) members ran on a platform of pension reform, and I think that will help us get that job done," Gov. Quinn said. The governor may have proved hapless in this fight thus far, but in this we believe he's right.

Unfortunately, it appears that, though the debate isn't exactly back at square one, progress has been lost.

According to wire service reports, House Speaker Michael Madigan declared last week that "a great deal of good work has been done" that wouldn't disappear once the curtain had fallen on the last Legislature. We worry, however, that absent a deadline, however artificial, old deal-breakers will be resurrected in this new General Assembly.

Take, for example, the pension cost shift Rep. Madigan had temporarily taken off the table. Suburban and downstate lawmakers have balked at the notion of switching future costs of teacher pensions to local property taxpayers. Chicago pays for its teacher pensions while, the speaker says, the rest of the state gets a "free lunch" because the state picks up the cost.

The Chicago Democrat leader has a point regarding the fairness of the current setup, but surely he and other backers of a cost-shift cannot fail to recognize that there also is nothing fair about fobbing an unsustainable system off on local taxpayers without first ensuring an end to the mess created by decades of legislative mismanagement.

We lauded the speaker on this page for wisely choosing to delay action on the switch, fully expecting that the General Assembly would and should revisit the notion once reforms are enacted to make the system solvent. Returning that potentially explosive component to the mix now does not bode well for a deal. It's long past time that lawmakers could say, "trust us," with any degree of credibility.

And, of course, the influx of new Democrats beholden to the labor voting bloc sparks concern that it will be even harder to get the General Assembly to agree to anything that might reduce clearly unsustainable pension promises of the past. Senate President Cullerton is right; Illinois sorely needs some of the greatness he saw "within and around all of you in this chamber."

Our hope is that among them are some fearless Nixons.