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Madigan eases stance on Ill. pension reform

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn announced what could be a significant advance on pension reform, saying Friday that the powerful House speaker was willing to forgo the dicey issue of some retirement costs for teachers in order to fix the worst-in-the-nation pension deficit.

A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan confirmed the agreement, markedly raising Quinn’s hopes of getting a pension deal before the current General Assembly finishes its work Wednesday.

The Democratic governor told reporters after a meeting with Republicans in Wheaton that he will meet with legislative leaders today to try to reach a deal on closing a $96 billion funding gap.

The concession by Madigan would set aside, for now, Democrats’ plan to shift the employer portion of teachers’ retirement funds to local school districts, an issue that had stalled reform because Republicans say it would lead to increased local property taxes.

Quinn said Madigan suggested “that we would still keep working on that issue, we’d pay attention to that issue, but it was of such paramount importance that we act now, to begin the process of pension reform, that he was willing to take that particular issue off the table.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown confirmed the conversation and said the goal is to adopt a resolution early next week, before Wednesday’s adjournment of the current General Assembly. Quinn set the date as a deadline.

“What the speaker told the governor is we’ve got to pass a pension bill,” Brown said. “If setting aside the cost shift for now means passing other things, let’s pass other things.”

Neither Quinn nor Brown discussed what potential details leaders would address.

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.

Various plans floated in the last year have included bumped-up contributions and less-generous returns for current employees, which causes constitutionality questions for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton.

But the GOP has been hung up on what lawmakers call the “cost shift.”

Currently, the state pays for the employers’ portion of teachers’ pensions, and Democrats have said that cost should be shifted to the employers – school boards. Republicans have balked, claiming that would force local boards to raise property taxes.

Emerging from a discussion of the issue Friday with Quinn, GOP legislators and DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, Rep. Darlene Senger said with the cost shift out of the picture, “this is moving in a really significant direction.”

“Now we’re talking about, ‘Let’s stick with the real issue and the real issue is getting our pensions sustainable for the long term for everyone,’ ” the Naperville Republican said.

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

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