Illinois has been struggling to fund pensions for a long time, but an Evanston native with an exceptional math background is pushing to ease the pension mess during his first term in the State Senate.
Lawmakers could vote as early as Tuesday on a bill sponsored by freshman Sen. Daniel Biss, one he hopes will make a serious dent in the state's unfunded pension liability. If passed, Biss has promised that his bill would cut the state's current $95 billion unfunded liability by $28 billion and reduce the state's total pension payments by $159 billion over the next 32 years, according to the News-Gazette.
Biss's rise to the senate floor has been rapid. In 2010, he won the Illinois House seat with his second bid for the office. A year later, after former State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg announced he would not seek reelection in the 9th District, Biss ran and won the newly vacant seat representing the towns of Golf, Kenilworth, Northfield, Wilmette and Winnetka, and parts of Evanston, Glencoe, Glenview, Morton Grove, Northbrook and Skokie, in the State Senate.
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Among his first orders of business in Springfield has the multibillion dollar pension problem, which is damaging the state's credit rating. Speaking to Patch earlier this year, Biss said he believes his background in math makes him a good fit for the challenge. He graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Harvard, went on to get a Ph. D in mathematics from MIT and then became a math professor at The University of Chicago.
“It feels like a natural place for me to make a difference for the State of Illinois,” he said.
Biss and the Cost Shift
In his last days at the Illinois House, Biss teamed up with State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) to offer a detailed proposal that addressed the pension issue and won earlier support from a House committee, but did not get voted on by either chamber in the waning days of the last session.
One of the ideas was a “cost shift” in the pension system, in which local school districts would have to pay the pension costs for teachers that had been paid for by the state in the past.
Some local school officials have opposed the idea, including Districts 65 and 202 in Evanston. The two school boards passed a joint resolution denouncing the idea of a cost shift. Biss was not surprised by the resistance, but said the cost shift was necessary.
“There’s nothing but blowback on this issue,” he said. “This issue is about $100 billion in pain and the breaking of long held and unsustainable habits. We’ve got a $100 billion hole to fill and our sources to fill them are other program spending, taxes, benefit reform and asking other people to make up the difference. The question is not (whether) the school districts like it; the question is if it is manageable and is it possible and is the best of the unpleasant ways forward.”
Biss remains hopeful something will get done.
“I understand this is a very hard issue and very emotional and I’m patient and I’m supposed to work as hard as it takes to achieve what the state needs.”
The fact that Biss did make an effort earned him some respect from Paul Green of Roosevelt University, a leading political expert in Illinois. Green notes that any freshman senator is limited to how much impact he has, but came away impressed with Biss.
“What he has done is that he has made a name for himself in the metropolitan Chicago region as a player and I think that is where the positive is," Green said. "He has made a pretty big splash.”
Is Biss the New Garrett?
Biss, who was actually inaugurated a few days before his Senate colleagues, seems to be following the same path as former State Sen. Susan Garrett, who represented the Illinois House 59th District for four years before representing the 29th District from 2003 to 2013 — she announced last year she wouldn't seek reelection for another term.
“I thought the House was a learning experience," Garrett said. "I learned about how committees operate and I learned about the nitty gritty about drafting and passing legislation."
Like Biss, Garrett was in the House under the direction of Speaker Mike Madigan. Now Biss is learning what Senate life is like under Majority Leader John Cullerton, under whom Garrett served.
“Speaker Madigan is very precise in how he presides over the House," Garrett said. "With President Cullerton there is more flexibility."
"He is more apt to work out compromises,” she added.
Biss by the Issues
So as he gets his proverbial feet wet in the Senate Biss will likely have some major issues on his plate.
- Gay Marriage: A measure to have Illinois join nine other states in recognizing same sex marriage passed the Senate but has yet to be approved by the House. Biss remains optimistic that it will happen. “I think it will be soon and it is something I support,” he said.
- Gambling Expansion: Biss voted against a major gaming expansion bill that was eventually vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn. Biss remains lukewarm about additional gambling opportunities.
“I don’t think an additional casino in Chicago is the worst thing in the world but I take a very skeptical eye toward gaming expansion because of the social costs and the distribution of who tends to pay and because of the impact on communities,” he said.
- Gun Control Legislation: The fatal school shooting in Newtown, CT has brought the idea of a nationwide assault weapon ban to the forefront, along with a talk of a statewide measure. Biss is in favor of an assault rifle ban and limiting the capacities on some magazines. He acknowledges that it won’t be easy to accomplish given the determination of gun rights advocates especially in the rural part of the state.
“Doing difficult things is difficult, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try,” he said.
No New Bacon
Politicians usually love to “bring home the bacon” but Biss says he will not be pushing for any new massive projects for a while.
“The state is in real fiscal trouble so rather than initiate new projects the most important thing I can do is try to stabilize our finances,” Biss said.
Biss, 37, the brother of an accomplished pianist, is part of a Democratic supermajority in the Senate and hopes collaborating with colleagues will pay political dividends in the future.
“Every day I spend down there, I learn more about somebody I didn’t know before and I develop a better ability to advance causes that are important to my district,” he said.
Green and Garrett note that working with other legislators is the key for Biss and anyone else.
“If you go in there as a freelancer, you are not going to have much of an impact,” Green said.
But if Biss adapts, Green thinks there could be a very big future for the young senator, maybe even one in Washington.
“He’s obviously bright and has ambition,” Green said. “That is what I said about a State Senator [Barack Obama] about 15 years ago and look where is today.”