State Government

Illinois House returns today for final pension deal push

CHICAGO – With time winding down on the lame-duck session and no deal yet between Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative leaders, the House will convene Sunday for a final push to find a fix for Illinois' $96 billion pension crisis.

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan said Saturday he still believes an agreement is possible before Wednesday, when the current legislative session ends and new lawmakers are sworn into office.

Earlier in the week, Quinn announced a major sticking point had been set aside, as Madigan agreed to drop for now his proposal to shift pension costs for public school teachers from the state to local districts.

But the governor and legislative leaders emerged from a meeting at Quinn's Chicago office without agreeing on the outlines of a deal.

"I think that we ought to find a bill that we can all agree upon and pass that bill," Madigan said. "Unfortunately there are still differences among the participants."

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said talks would continue.

"We're going to just keep working until we get it done," she said.

Decades of inattention to saving up for state workers' retirement plans, including years where legislatures and governors skipped payments, means the state's five pension accounts are short $96 billion. The piling debt has hurt the state's credit rating, limiting its ability to borrow. It has also threatened to eat up more and more money for education and other public services.

Madigan's compromise, announced Friday and praised by Quinn as a breakthrough, would eliminate — for now — one of the reasons reform efforts collapsed in last spring's legislative session. Chicago schools already shoulder pension costs for their teachers, but Republicans worried that forcing the rest of Illinois to follow suit would result in higher property taxes.

Various plans floated in the last year have included bumped-up contributions and less-generous rewards for current employees, raising the retirement age and reducing cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton has said he wants lawmakers to pass a more modest alternative that the Senate adopted last spring. That proposal affects only a portion of the workers and retirees but would be a starting point, and Cullerton is concerned that more ambitious efforts could be unconstitutional.

Joining Quinn at Saturday's meeting were Madigan, Cullerton, House Republican leader Tom Cross and Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno.

Afterward, spokesman Ron Holmes noted Cullerton also has agreed to delay the issue of shifting costs for teacher pensions.

"He urges the House to take bipartisan action on a pension reform proposal in the coming days," Holmes said.

Radogno said she wasn't married to any particular framework, but that "we still obviously have a long way to go."

Among other obstacles, disagreement remains over which approach courts are most likely to consider constitutional and whether to include provisions to help Chicago with its pension crisis.

The House convenes Sunday with plans to work until Wednesday morning. The Senate adjourned abruptly Thursday night but Cullerton cautioned senators to be ready for a call to return Tuesday if action is needed on any legislation.

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