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Slow movement on Illinois pension fix

SPRINGFIELD – With just days before an end-of-session deadline, lawmakers have only inched toward a solution for Illinois' nearly $100 billion pension problem.

Both the House and Senate are at odds with how to proceed on two overhauls. Three smaller pension bills – dealing with retirement age, salary caps and cost-of-living increases – are on the Senate floor. Another more controversial idea – making schools pick up their own pension costs – began to materialize Wednesday.

"This is a game of pingpong without the ball," said Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican, who's been key in pension talks.

Illinois has the nation's worst pension problem because lawmakers either skipped or shorted payments for decades. Gov. Pat Quinn says finding a solution is top priority, but there hasn't been consensus on an approach. Lawmakers adjourn Friday.

Senators could vote anytime on the smaller bills, which might be test votes for ideas in House Speaker Michael Madigan's pension bill or a way to see what courts find constitutional. His plan, which cuts benefit across the board for everybody, has cleared the House and awaits a Senate vote.

But Cullerton says his overhaul, which would give retirees a choice between health care or other pension benefits, among other provisions, would survive a constitutional challenge. It's currently sitting in a House committee after senators approved it.

Cullerton said his Democratic caucus would discuss the smaller bills and other overhauls Thursday to figure out the savings and which ones had enough votes.

"That's what the issue is," he told reporters Wednesday evening. "I don't have a strategy ... yet."

Meanwhile, Northbrook Democrat Rep. Elaine Nekritz, another key player in pension talks, said Wednesday that she was readying a bill requiring state universities and community colleges to gradually pick up their own pension costs. Earlier this month, the heads of several higher education institutions agreed to pay half of 1 percent of retirement costs each year starting in fiscal year 2015.

What remained was whether local school districts would follow suit. Nekritz said that idea, which Republicans oppose because they say it will raise property taxes, was still being negotiated. __ The bills are HB1154, HB1165 and HB1166. Online: www.ilga.gov __ Contact Sophia Tareen at https://www.twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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