Something south of cheese in the state of Illinois

Pension deal surgery leaves disease intact and private-sector taxpayers on the hook

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Tribune columnist John Kass and reporter Jenniffer Weigel discuss whether the bill approved Tuesday will fix Illinois' huge public worker pension problem.

Watching Illinois politicians brag about how they reformed the state pension mess — actually pretending they cured the same deadly infection that they caused years ago — I had an odd thought.

Does Illinois smell south of cheese?

It sounds absurd, yes, with politicians proclaiming their rendezvous with destiny, but as our political class thumped their chests in triumph, I asked Facebook friends to recommend movies.

Specifically, movies in which a character is wounded and the grizzled doctor pulls away the dressing and smells the terrible decay. That's when he announces that he must amputate to save a life.

The other actors give the wounded guy something to bite on, usually some leather wrapped around a stick. The doc grabs the bone saw. The wounded guy bites down hard.

But on Tuesday in Springfield, it wasn't a stick wrapped in leather. Instead, taxpayers were asked to bite down hard on promises that fiscal responsibility had finally arrived in Illinois.

Happy days.

You've seen the sawbones scene in dozens of pictures. In action films like "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," where the little lord loses an arm, and in Westerns like "Lonesome Dove," where Gus McCrae gets his leg lopped off. You've seen it in old grainy B-movies involving jungle heat, humidity and aborigines with poisoned arrows.

Reader Joe Stefanec nominated a line from the World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan," the part where a medic checks on a soldier's infected wound.

"Smell that leg right there," says the medic. "I want to know if it's south of cheese."

South of cheese? Another way to say Illinois.

Make no mistake about what happened in Springfield on Tuesday. Boss Mike Madigan, the ruling Democrat and speaker of the Illinois House, played doctor along with his faithful Democratic attendant, Senate President John Cullerton, and their ever-pliant Republican orderlies.

In the movies, after the doc sniffs the wound, he all but gags and then sets about to his terrible and necessary work to save the patient.

But that didn't happen in Springfield. The political doctors smelled infection all right. They know what it smells like. They've lived off it, and some have gotten rich off it.

Instead of cutting, really cutting down into where they had to go, they kicked the saw into the corner of the tent.

"Here," they might as well have said, "take a couple of these children's aspirins. Don't worry. They taste like orange."

Gov. Pat Quinn naturally proclaimed victory.

"Today, we have won," said Quinn in a statement. "The people of Illinois have won."

To his credit, Gov. Quinn has tried for a year to do something about the pension mess. I do not question his sincerity. He angered some unions. And unlike so many others, Quinn didn't get into politics to get rich.

But this deal isn't his deal. It's a Madigan-Cullerton deal. And it doesn't go far enough. It doesn't guarantee that there will be no tax increase. It doesn't freeze cost-of-living increases for public employees or put them all on 401(k) plans like many of us are stuck with.

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