SPRINGFIELD — Lame-duck lawmakers could provide the extra push needed to get public pension changes and Medicaid reforms through the General Assembly this year.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Lame-duck lawmakers could provide the extra push needed to get public pension changes and Medicaid reforms through the General Assembly this year.

Voters on Tuesday added to the ranks of lawmakers who won’t return to Springfield next year. It creates a situation similar to last year, when the Legislature passed an income tax increase, gave the OK for civil unions and abolished the death penalty.

It is unlikely legislation of such magnitude will move during the remainder of this General Assembly’s tenure — the lame-duck session in 2010-11 was shorter and created more pressure to act on those issues.

But major reforms of costly state systems could benefit from this lame-duck class.

Twenty-two incumbents — a mix of Republicans and Democrats — said they won’t seek re-election this fall. Another seven incumbents, mostly Republicans, lost their primary race Tuesday.

“It depends why someone is a lame duck. Sometimes people believe that being a lame duck is temporary. But by and large, these are good opportunities to move things” through the legislative process, said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

The issues sure to dominate the conversations in the halls of the Capitol are public pension and Medicaid reforms. The costs associated with Illinois’ Medicaid system and public pensions have ballooned in recent years, eating up more and more of the state’s budget.

Pensions now take up 15 percent of the state’s annual budget, up from just 3 percent of the budget in 2006. The cost of pension payments have risen from $2.1 billion in 2006 to $5.9 billion this year.

Despite the increase, the state’s public pension system is underfunded by $83 billion. Overdue Medicaid bills, which stand at $2 billion, are set to hit $21 billion by 2017 if nothing is done.

Lawmakers have promised to do something about the exploding costs this year, and Gov. Pat Quinn said he is willing to call special session days this summer to ensure some meaningful reforms are passed.

Two working groups are studying pension changes and Medicaid reforms. They’re scheduled to deliver their findings by mid-April, but already legislative leaders and Quinn are hinting at details of what might be, particularly in regard to public pensions.

Quinn has talked about moving much of the burden of teachers’ pension contributions to local school districts. Monday, State Sen. Pres. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, talked about the idea during a speech in Chicago.

“I believe it’s time to ask local school district outside of Chicago to have some skin in the game,” Cullerton said.

Currently, the state matches suburban and downstate teachers’ contributions to their pensions while local school districts only pay in a fraction of a percent of the costs. The Chicago Public School system is a different beast and receives little from the state in terms of pension funding.

Local school districts hire the teachers, set the terms of their contracts and salaries, while it’s up to the state to cover pension costs, which Cullerton called “unfair.”

The Teachers Retirement System is the largest public pension system in the state.

The General Assembly will pay in $2.7 billion this year to the system, an increase of $300 million over last year.

Cullerton said that switch to more local pension responsibility would be phased in over a number of years.

The proposal is a tough vote for downstate and suburban lawmakers seeking re-election in the Nov. 6 general election. Local leaders and school officials say shifting the burden of their teachers’ pensions would cause either property taxes to go up, money spent in the classroom to go down, or some combination of the two.

Lawmakers are afraid of a backlash at the polls, which might happen if voters believe either one of those possibilities could become reality, especially after the Legislature raised the individual income tax by 67 percent last year.

But without the threat of losing in November, tough decisions come easier to lame-duck lawmakers.

There has been a lot less talk about what the changes to the Medicaid system could be. Cutting some services and lowering doctors’ reimbursement rates have been talked about, but nothing like the specific pension reforms has solidified.

Legislative “leaders will ask (lame-duck legislators) to take the tough votes to protect other people in the fall” election, State Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, R-Des Plaines, said.

Mulligan lost her write-in campaign in Tuesday’s primary. She neglected to file with the Illinois State Board of Elections in time for her name to be on Tuesday’s ballot.

Mulligan said she would continue to be outspoken and “do what I darn well please.” Colleagues who aren’t as brash might find some freedom with the weight of re-election lifted from their shoulders, Mulligan said.

The large number of lame-duck legislators is a result of redistricting, which causes the lines of legislative districts to be redrawn every decade to match population shifts outlined by the U.S. Census.

“It is common for there to be more turnover than usual on this first election cycle (after redistricting). We’re going to have even more than normal turnover this election cycle because there are more retirements, more people running for other offices, more incumbents getting out,” said John Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University.

Jackson said being a lawmaker is a tough gig. There’s the pressure of following your ethical compass, keeping your caucus leaders and colleagues behind your ideas and appeasing what can be a cantankerous constituency.

For 29 lame duck lawmakers now in Springfield, that last point might not be as much a pressure as it is an afterthought.

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