CHICAGO – Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a middle route Monday between two rival plans holding up a solution to Illinois' nearly $100 billion pension crisis, but it's unclear whether Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan will support it.
Quinn asked lawmakers to craft and approve legislation that would include both competing pension plans – one advanced by Madigan and the other by Senate President John Cullerton – when they convene next week in a special session to deal with the nation's worst pension problem.
Madigan's plan, widely regarded as offering the most cost savings, would unilaterally impose pension changes on state workers and raise the retirement age. Cullerton's plan gives state workers choices over what benefits to receive in retirement, something he contends would give it a better chance of being upheld by the state Supreme Court.
Quinn proposes passing both in one single bill, essentially making Cullerton's proposal a backup plan in case Madigan's harsher solution fails a legal challenge. But Madigan would not commit to supporting Quinn's proposal, suggesting it was too complicated and insisting his own plan was the best option.
"This is like a lot of things in the Legislature, you can make it complicated if you wish or you can keep it simple," Madigan said. "I think this is the time for the governor to step up, meet with Senate President Cullerton and individual senators and (support) the House pension proposal."
Madigan has argued that his plan will pass constitutional muster because the courts give legislatures wide discretion in times of crisis.
Still, Quinn expressed hope that Madigan and Cullerton will work together to pass the compromise legislation. After the trio met for two hours Monday morning in Chicago, he drew on the image of goal-scoring Chicago Blackhawks duo Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in calling the two legislative leaders to compromise.
"I appeal to them to work together to put this priority on my desk," Quinn said.
Under the hybrid proposal, the legislation's implementation date would be pushed back until next June, Cullerton said. That would allow lawmakers to skirt the need for a "supermajority" – or three-fifths of a chamber's votes – for passage during a special session.
Illinois' five public employee retirement systems are $97 billion short of what's needed to pay benefits as currently promised to workers and retirees, due largely to years of the Legislature voting to skip or short the state's payments.
The hybrid idea is similar to a piece of legislation that Cullerton first advanced in January. It would have given the courts a choice between two competing pension plans.
But some House Democrats described the idea at the time as disingenuous. By having two plans, they argued, the courts were essentially being invited to strike down the tougher proposal.
"I was one of those people saying that pretty loudly," state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, the Democratic point-person on pension reform in the House, told the Associated Press Monday. "That's why I always thought [that] putting it in one bill is really problematic. No way if we can give them the plan that saves a lot less money in the same bill that they'll pass the other."
Nekritz said she believes the courts will uphold a pension proposal if they believe it was a truly necessary action due to the state's precarious finances.
The annual pension payment now is about $6 billion – an amount that takes money away from areas such as education and public safety, and that will continue to grow each year until lawmakers act.
Quinn called the special session for June 19 after the General Assembly adjourned May 31 without taking final action on either the Madigan or Cullerton plan. But critics note that the Chicago Democrat called a similar session last year with no success and that another one will be a costly waste of time if no deal is in hand by the time lawmakers come back together.
The governor tried to meet with Cullerton and Madigan last week about the issue, but only Cullerton showed up. Madigan, who does not have a personal cellphone, could not be reached.
Republicans, meanwhile, condemned how the Democrats are handling the issue without GOP or public input. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno described Monday's meetings as part of a practice of "secrecy and exclusion that has provided only failure."
House Republican Leader Tom Cross Leader Cross "has been against that concept in the past," his spokeswoman said in an email. "However, he was not in today's meeting with the Governor, Speaker and President, so he isn't exactly sure what was talked about. Leader Cross is meeting with the Governor tomorrow and will maybe get more of an update then."
Since the Legislature failed to act on pensions, two Republicans have announced they're running for governor in 2014 – state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner. They say the inaction showed a lack of leadership by Quinn, who once said he was "put on earth" to solve the problem.
Quinn declined to look beyond what might happen in the special session next week.
"It's important we work for next Wednesday to get the job done," Quinn.