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Local lawmakers unsure whether committee will produce pension compromise

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Illinois lawmakers came to a special session on pension reform, they saw, they formed a committee, they collected per diems for their trouble, and they left.

The House and Senate on Wednesday approved creating a 10-member committee to attempt to develop a pension fix that reconciles deep differences between reform bills passed by both houses. Gov. Pat Quinn called for the special session after lawmakers adjourned May 31 without approving a plan to address an unfunded pension liability now approaching $100 billion.

Wednesday’s votes create a “conference committee,” a rarely used tool to reach consensus when the House and Senate reach an impasse. The committee will be made up of 10 members – Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan each will get three appointees, and House Republican Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno each will get two.

Another special session is scheduled for July 8 to vote on whatever legislation the committee develops. But local lawmakers have mixed feelings as to whether legislation enacting meaningful pension reform will materialize.

“I think there’s an opportunity to reach an agreement and pass a bill,” said state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake. “This is probably the most frustrating thing I’ve been involved in since I’ve been in Springfield. I think this is fixable.”

But Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, was more pessimistic. He pointed out that the Democrats since January have held supermajorities in both houses, yet could not enact pension reform.

“I have no idea what they think they’re going to accomplish now with a committee,” Duffy said.

The House and Senate passed their own versions of pension reform during the spring session, but neither Madigan nor Cullerton called the other’s bill for a vote. Madigan felt the Senate bill does not go nearly far enough, and Cullerton insisted the House bill violates the pension guarantee in the Illinois Constitution and would not survive a court challenge by the state’s powerful public-sector unions.

Madigan and Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats like Quinn, adopted differing plans to catch up over 30 years on the pension debt after decades of state underfunding and what critics call overly generous benefits. The differences between the two powerful figures overrode the fact that voters last year granted the Democrats supermajorities in both houses, meaning they can pass legislation without Republican votes. 

Madigan rewrote a Senate plan that applied only to downstate and suburban teachers. The House plan increases by 2 percent what state employees must contribute to their pensions , and raises the retirement age for workers younger than 45. It also limits the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment by calculating it based on $1,000 for each year of work, and raises the year when retirees can be eligible for it. 

Cullerton said the House bill blatantly violates the constitutional provision that public pensions “cannot be diminished or impaired.” He crafted a bill, backed by public-sector unions, that gives workers and retirees a choice of either keeping their 3 percent COLA and not getting state health insurance, or keeping health insurance upon retirement and getting a smaller COLA. 

Quinn called for a special session the week after lawmakers adjourned, and as two of the three major bond rating agencies further downgraded the state’s credit rating, which is the worst among all 50 states.

“This is an emergency, and the taxpayers of Illinois are depending on the General Assembly to produce a real solution that erases our pension debt and supports economic growth. As I’ve repeatedly made clear, taxpayers cannot afford gridlock on this paramount issue,” Quinn said in a statement.

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, blasted the plan to create a committee. He said he doubted it will bear fruit because the leaders in charge of making appointments “are the four legislative leaders who couldn’t make a compromise” on pension reform.

And if the committee does produce legislation that manages to pass, Franks said, it will not take effect until June 1, 2014, not counting delays caused when lawsuits are filed to strike it down. Given the oft-quoted cost of pension inaction to the state of $17 million a day, that adds up to about $6.2 billion, he said.

“This looks to me like a political stunt designed to show a purpose for a special session in which the governor had no plan,” Franks said.

Tryon, on the other hand, said he does not blame Quinn for the current situation.

“I blame House Speaker Madigan and Senate President Cullerton,” Tryon said. “This is a chest-beating contest between the two chamber leaders.”

Local lawmakers also questioned the cost of hashing out reform in a special session, each day of which costs Illinois taxpayers at least $40,000. Lawmakers collect a $100 per diem to defray the cost on top of their annual salaries. Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, said lawmakers had five months to tackle the issue.

“Procedurally, [a special session] had to happen, but if only they had done this five months ago,” Wheeler said.

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