CHICAGO – Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said Monday that he'll push forward with a pension overhaul "as quickly as possible" and that the timing is right to legalize gay marriage and possibly expand gambling, previewing what could be a packed spring legislative session.
Cullerton, who spoke to the City Club of Chicago, stressed the need for addressing Illinois' pension crisis, particularly after Standard & Poor's downgraded Illinois' credit rating last week to the worst of any U.S. state. The rating service blamed lawmakers' continuing failure to resolve a multibillion-dollar pension problem.
The Chicago Democrat introduced legislation — Senate Bill 1 — after lawmakers were sworn in earlier this month that combines two plans previously proposed. Cullerton hoped the downgrade would motivate lawmakers to act on the pension problem.
"We have to work on it," he told reporters after the speech. "We're trying to pass it as quickly as possible."
Cullerton gave the packed audience a slide show outlining Illinois' dire financial problems, including billions of dollars in unpaid bills, an income tax increase that will expire in 2015 meaning less revenue and a massive pension payment squeezing state spending.
Illinois has nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability, the most of any state in the country. Over the years, Illinois has failed to meet its pension obligation and lawmakers have continually failed to come up with a plan. Gov. Pat Quinn had set a deadline earlier this month for the end of the lame-duck session when outgoing lawmakers are more apt to take tough votes, but they adjourned without calling for a vote.
On the table now is Cullerton's bill, which includes parts of a Senate-approved measure along with the increased contributions and reduced benefits in the bill that failed to get a House vote.
Cullerton said he is working on getting support for it, including briefing new senators.
He said that he also sees good timing to legalize gay marriage in Illinois.
Advocates have been pushing for legislation that offers same-sex couples marriage rights currently only available to heterosexual couples. They'd hoped to capitalize on momentum from other states and President Barack Obama's support.
"We're getting more support in the public every day," he said. "I expect we will call it very early on in the session, if not in the first few weeks."
Another issue that could come up early in the session is gambling expansion. Lawmakers have twice approved legislation to expand gambling in the state — including a casino in Chicago. Quinn had said the measures lacked ethical safeguards but he was willing to work on a compromise.
"I'm optimistic that if we can reach an agreement with the governor, we'll be able to pass it again," he said.